BWW Review: SWEAT, Gielgud Theatre
At a quieter moment of Lynn Nottage's Sweat, Jessie (Leanne Best) stands with a cake celebrating her 43rd birthday in Mike's Tavern. If not for the bartender Stan (Stuart McQuarrie) and his assistant Oscar (Sebastián Capitán Viveros), Jessie would be alone. Dressed in white cowgirl boots, Jessie whispers how she "just wants to be kissed".
The tradition has been that Jessie celebrates with Tracey (Martha Plimpton) and Cynthia (Clare Perkins) whenever one of them celebrates a birthday. They are an alcohol-fuelled but hard-working triumvirate. Together they all work in a local factory in Reading, Pennsylvania. But times are changing, and the nature of loyalty (both professional and between friends) is shifting.
Moving between a timeline of around five years, we see Cynthia successfully applying for a higher role within the company, going up against Tracey. When her friends and son are laid off as a result of deindustrialisation, Cynthia is blamed for representing those higher forces and not being able to protect her friends and family. Nottage ties in to this story currents of racial hatred and economic dissatisfaction. In this community, generations of families have worked at the factory, and starting there as a boy and leaving an aged man maps the career path of many local men and women.
Times are changing. Managers who are concerned at getting their "diplomas soiled with Sweat" replace those who once comfortably walked the factory floor, whilst new machinery and cheap labour from foreign workers threatens to make many of the factory workers redundant. Spending your life working for the same company makes you target for cost-cutting due to your increased salary, and eventually all the patrons of Mike's Tavern find themselves suffering at the hands of this depersonalised regime of dollars and dimes.
Sweat opened in the UK at the Donmar Warehouse in December 2018. Winner of the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for Drama and nominated for an Olivier Award this year, the show returns for only 50 performances at the Gielgud Theatre.
The move from the Donmar to the Gielgud has had both positive and negative effects on Sweat. Whereas before audiences were sat intimately along the border of Mike's Tavern, now Nottage's play feels like it is presenting a tableau of the foundations of America. With televisual projections often being used to connect scenes, there's little doubt that across the country similar conversations and arguments are being had between workers. This change is obviously fast becoming a national issue.
In having the factory 'floor' represented by the industrial machinery above the actors with Mike's Tavern below, Frankie Bradshaw's design emphasises how work and play were almost inseparable for those living in this town. The tavern itself gives off a homey feel: frequently populated with at least one regular on a bar stool passed out or on their way, drinking is as regular an act as sleeping and eating for some of these people.
Director Lynette Linton brings out the very best in this cast. Perkins perfectly captures the self of frustrated confusion Cynthia feels at accepting the promotion, whilst Plimpton balances the rage and sensitivity of a woman who has clearly known (and will continue to know) loss.
Representing the younger generation, Osy Ikhile and Patrick Gibson as Chris and Jason respectively represent the future of this community and potentially the country: the former wants to go to school and train as a teacher whilst the latter is willing to fight for the older system. What is clear is that the future rests on a coin toss with one young man or the other making it. But who or what will do the tossing remains uncertain, as is the final result.
If a downside might be put forward of Sweat, it is that the early 2000s setting can make some of the character's concerns appear facile by today's standards: the complaints that the thought of people retiring after turning 60 and even the concept of working boy to man within one company feels outlandishly bizarre. Clearer signposting would also have been welcome for the jumps between time period instead of relying mostly on the television screenings.
Sweat is, otherwise, a powerful piece that reminds us that the complaints we hear so frequently today - fears around immigration, job losses, social immobility, street violence, and alcohol and drug abuse - have been going on for far longer perhaps than we are willing to admit. Even worse is that no answers seem to have yet made themselves apparent - it remains the case that the faceless processes of economics and industry work on a model of adaptability that will often leave you with less pay and more work. Sweat refuses to put forward an alternative, and therein lies the tragedy.
Beautifully acted, Sweat deserves all the praise it has received so far. It reminds us that the modern world was built upon the actions of these men and women, but it never allows us to romanticise this earlier time. They may have been happy with the way things were, but, as Jessie states, she "just wants to be kissed". Can we not all appreciate that desire to be loved and feel secure?
Photo credit: Johan Persson.