Reviewer: Maryam Philpott
The political fallout of recent weeks has given rise to huge debates in Britain about the nature of our society and what future we want to have. With reports of attacks on EU nationals in the UK and cultural declarations of support such as the ‘London is Open’ hashtag adopted by numerous institutions on social media, as a nation we have been forced to question whether our levels of tolerance and acceptance are actually regressing.
Into this debate comes Caryl Churchill’s 15-minute play,Pigs and Dogs, which takes the 2014Ugandan outlawing of homosexuality – punishable by death – as a basis to explore attitudes and experiences of sexual liberty across Africa, Europe and America for hundreds for years. The length of this piece also feeds London’s new found love of the short play recently utilised by the Branagh Theatre Company – in Rattigan’s All on Her Own – and the St James’s Theatre with its Ayckbourn-Mortimer lunchtime double bill.
A 15 minute play that covers centuries of history may sound impossible, but Churchill manages to pull it off and deliver an important and well-timed social warning about the contrast between supposed modernity and rather old-fashioned bigotry. Using just three actors, which, in the spirit of tolerance. Churchill specifies can be any gender or race, but should all be different, the text itself is not assigned to any one individual. Dashes mark a change of speaker and so it’s up to the cast and director to divide the text between them, meaning every time this play is revived it will have a different resonance depending on the cast and the way the words have been shared.
The play divides into mini sections each lasting a few seconds and moving to a different country, region, tribe or time-period giving an experience or attitude to homosexuality. It starts with the negative voices in Africa, creates testimony from tribes with more fluid concepts of sexuality and gender than are common today, before taking in ideas as far flung as 19th Century anthropologists, 16th Century English law-makers, modern American evangelists and a missionary in the 17th Century Congo.
It’s an extraordinary variety showcasing Churchill’s wide-ranging research process and ability to integrate multiple narratives and stories seamlessly into one pointed political piece. Its length is crucial; any longer, even just up to 30 minutes, and it could be in danger of seeming self-righteous and dramatically repetitive. But 15 minutes is just enough to make a clear statement about the spread of intolerance, and Churchill keeps the point sharp and stark.
The Royal Court has enticed a stellar cast and crew, reuniting director Dominic Cooke with his leading lady Sharon D Clarke from the 2016 Olivier Award-winning Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, alongside rising star Fisayo Akinade and Alex Hassell who recently completed a couple of seasons as Prince Hal in the RSC’s much lauded Shakespeare History Cycle.
Together they move effortlessly around the stage, weaving between each other as they change persona and flitting between vast numbers of impressively different accents. The actors give the piece a momentum that builds the evidence while retaining a feel of performance poetry at times, wearing what looks like their own clothes on a bare stage.
Pigs and Dogs is an interesting piece of theatre from a writer unafraid to experiment. While the message is strong, it comes alive with the many colourful examples drawn from history that also touch on bisexuality and transvestism in places where no such labels existed. So as the UK starts to shape its new future, Churchill’s work reminds us that our decisions will create a legacy, not just for Britain’s future but for all the countries we engage with. And all that in just 15 minutes
Runs until 30 July 2016 | Image: Helen Murray