It’s difficult to have a conversation these days without some reference to the bleak social/political landscape. And such conversations are typically characterised by a sense of helplessness, of being overwhelmed. This very contemporary feeling is addressed in People, Places & Things, where Duncan Macmillan’s character argues that addiction to drugs and alcohol is a fairly rational response to the ‘moral ambivalence you have to have to just be able to carry on with your day’. In Parliament Square, however, writer James Fritz explores the personal consequences of a dramatic alternative response; rather than withdrawing into a private oblivion, his main character (‘ Kat’) abandons her much-loved husband and toddler to execute a public act of sufficient magnitude and shock-value to galvanise people everywhere into ‘doing something’ to ‘stop the rot’.
The play opens on the day of Kat’s fateful trip to Parliament Square. We watch her navigate the emotional and practical pitfalls of her clandestine journey and the build up to the completion of her mission (the full nature of which we do not learn until around 15 minutes in). The staging is beautifully simple: the stage is bare except for random objects – a kettle, a cuddly toy, a toothbrush mug, a plant etc. As Kat painfully extricates herself from her domestic life and sets out, these objects are each collected and, in a powerful visual metaphor, placed in a skip. Her journey is punctuated by conversations with the disembodied voices of assorted others (including mobile calls from distraught husband and mother). The physical absence of these characters and the lack of any attempt at naturalism is a graphic way of transporting us directly into the egocentrism of Kat’s state of mind – the only reality is her sense of purpose and her internal dialogue (externalised via the excellent alter ego performance of Lois Chimimba).
The remainder of the play is in two main parts. In the first, Kat and her family cope with the immediate consequences of her act of political defiance. In the second, Kat tries to reconstruct a ‘normal’ apolitical life, retreating into the smaller, safer world of family obligation, celebrating the trivial routines and shoring up her defences against an increasingly hostile environment.
From the outset, we are challenged to interrogate the meaning of ‘selfishness’. Is it selfish to recognise all the injustices and evils in the world but do nothing – to indulge in all those “isn’t-it-awful?” conversations but then to go home and attend to our domestic imperatives on the grounds that, ultimately, it is ‘nothing to do with us’? Or is it selfish to take responsibility for those evils: to fight for the needs of strangers (present and future) but sacrifice the needs and well-being of our own children/partners/parents? Of course, this may be a false opposition – and Fritz’s play presents it in the starkest and most provocative way. But it draws on a recognisable tension in all our lives between different levels of responsibility: as a mum/dad/son/daughter at one end of the spectrum, and as a human being at the other.
We are also invited to consider how we should regard someone who is willing to embrace tremendous personal suffering – and countenance the extreme distress of her family – for the sake of a political ideal. Are they brave? Heroic? Foolhardy? Deluded? Or simply ‘not well’, as suggested by Kat’s mother (brilliantly played by Joanne Howarth)?
Fritz’s central character is, in general, a difficult person to empathise with. In the first place, Fritz never tells us what event (or series of events) precipitates her mission, and this sense of arriving late to the party places us at a distance from Kat. Further, it is hard to comprehend Kat’s particular choice of protest – hard, indeed, not to recoil from it. However, Fritz clearly has other purposes here. The very under-specification of Kat’s motivation also makes the play more broadly accessible, enabling each of us to project (or at least consider) whatever outrage or injustice might act as a tipping point in our own lives. Similarly, the extremity of Kat’s choice is a very potent way of raising the question as to what form of dissent is to be deemed appropriate when petitions and marches don’t seem to be up to the task of halting the current tsunami of political horrors.
In general, it feels like Fritz doesn’t want us to empathise with Kat as much as to be challenged by her. And herein lies both the difficulty and the strength of Parliament Square. The difficulty is that, overall, it just doesn’t move me as much as I feel it should. There are moments when I ‘get’ Kat’s sense of being thwarted, misunderstood and forced to compromise but this is mitigated by the fact that I am not sufficiently invested emotionally in her or her mission. The strength of the play, however, lies on a more cerebral level. It raises powerful and pertinent questions, articulating issues and feelings that are urgently in need of articulation. It certainly provoked a great deal of interesting post-show discussion, and if it’s theatre’s mission to start a conversation, then James Fritz has done his job.
Parliament Square can be seen at the Royal Exchange from 18-28 October, and at the Bush Theatre (London) from 30 November – 6 January. It is directed by Jude Christan, designed by Fly Davis and features Esther Smith as ‘Kat’.