Writer: Clifford Odets
Director: Phil Cheadle
A play explicitly designed to celebrate and galvanise collective action as the USA emerged from the Great Depression, Waiting for Lefty was a phenomenal success when first performed in 1935, with productions in 32 cities simultaneously across the country. Inspired by the urgent, socially engaged nature of the work, Two Lines Productions have created an online version which will stream live nightly until 23rd May.
Like the Royal Court’s recent Living Newspaper project, which drew upon the US Federal Theatre Project, an arts programme for unemployed artists and theatre workers, the radical cultural responses to the Great Depression are clearly proving fertile for contemporary theatre makers. And while it is hard to substitute for the live, collective experience of watching Clifford Odets’s play, this is a truly valiant attempt to capture its passion. The production must, by necessity, bring a circumspect approach to the ‘agitprop’ of the original, but the ingenuity of the production’s design and energy of the performances mean it is inspiring nevertheless.
The play tells the story a cab drivers’ union meeting, with arguments flung around both for and against strike action. Interspersed by scenes which illuminate the personal lives and particular struggles of individual workers and their families, each episode is introduced with intertitles styled with black and white 30s typography, and the language and references of the piece, so redolent of the times, are very much intact. Apart from the obligatory plaid shirts, the costumes are sketchy and contemporary, and the set design is limited to what’s at hand in the actors’ homes.
The episodes are often engrossing: the vignette of the boss (an oily and seductive Tim Delop) insidiously pressuring an employee (Rebecca Scroggs) to spy on another colleague, for example, and the anguished farewell between the sweethearts (Maria Gale and Rhys Rusbatch) whose relationship cannot survive the crippling economics of their circumstances. The conversation between one senior doctor (John Moraitis) to his junior (Philip Arditti), captures the moment of radicalisation itself, as Arditti’s seemingly secure status – both economic and social – begins to crumble; ‘These things that the radicals say, you don’t believe them until they happen to you’.
The skill of Odets’s original design becomes clear once we realise the distribution of the play’s focus amongst all the characters; there is no hero – and the longed-for Lefty does not arrive. The ending is quite thrilling, as the calls for ‘strike’ sweep through each of the characters’ screens, and we wonder, momentarily, what it would be like if everyone, the audience included, took up the call.
The ‘make do and mend’ quality necessitated by lockdown is well suited to what we might call the ethics of the piece – an attitude that is very far from precious – which sees the text and the performance as a stepping-stone for further discussion. And indeed, the panel discussion that follows the show is an intrinsic part of the design, with a different schedule of speakers (trade union reps, economists, academics) for each night of the run. It’s an adroit use of the Zoom format, and offers a way of unpacking the parallels and differences with our contemporary moment, in a way that is genuinely accessible, allowing audience members and panellists to contribute unhindered by location and circumstance. The idea formalises the process we’ve all experienced of being opened up and galvanised by art, and while it would have been fascinating to hear from the company themselves, the discussion on the first night was very illuminating.
We’re left with many questions: What does it mean to make radical theatre? What might contemporary versions of this play look like? And given that one thing which hinders collective action today, as distinct from the 1930s, is the loss of status for unions, what might we do to change this? The company’s commitment to the cause is clear, with everyone involved in the production paid above London Living Wage, and a third of all tickets reserved at a subsidised rate for union members.
Runs here until 23 May 2021