How did this happen? Once the subject of smug ridicule, a scandal-ridden reality show star with no political experience, coherent policies, or ability to string a sentence together, became the 45th President of the United States. In the two years since the election, countless column inches, discussions, and tweets have been spent trying to figure out how it could be that a man as unsuited, unpreprared, and unsavoury could have made it to the White House. Before the man even took office, Lynn Nottage had the answer.
But Sweat does not merely answer for the election of Donald Trump. Lynn Nottage’s prescient yet prophetic play answers for right-wing radicalism, xenophobia, white resentment, and the destructive failures of late-stage capitalism. The play does so with grace, empathy, intelligence and, dare I say it, hope. Extensively researched over two years from 2011-13, the play received its debut in 2015. It feels like it could have been written yesterday.
Sweat tells the story of Reading, Pennsylvania, where a working-class community of steel-workers is under threat. The factory is outsourcing labour and jobs are disappearing. The residents, who have suffered from declining living standards, decide to act. In doing so, they come up against forces more powerful than they could realise – turning friends against family, community, and each other.
Set in a local bar, the play explores the lives and plight of an ethnically diverse but economically alike ensemble. Everyone in the town seems to work at the steel factory, except for a crippled bartender, his Latino assistant, and a shambling addict, laid off long before, and wise to what’s coming. Featuring several interweaving narratives that cross families and friendships, the play is about how a group of ordinary people can be torn apart by an economic order that cares only for profits, and nothing for livelihoods.
Theatre has not always had a great track record of representing working-class stories but Sweat avoids caricature. Nottage’s time interviewing the residents has clearly played a substantial role in the writing of the characters, who feel authentic, relatable, and human. Sweat does not excuse its characters but argues for why they may act the way they do, smartly dissecting the dynamics of race and class in the process. The play deconstructs of the myth of an exclusively white working class, demonstrating how any serious discussion of class struggle cannot be viewed outside the lens of racial injustice.
Lynette Linton’s direction is brisk, unsparing, but also humane. Balancing the needs of an ensemble of complex characters is no easy feat, but Linton has pulled it off magnificently – not only giving each actor their ‘moment’ but the space to explore their joys, pains, and personalities. The fact that Linton can do this while maintaining tension is a marvel, and her excellent judgement bodes well for her upcoming stewardship of the Bush Theatre.
In terms of performance, no one puts a foot wrong. Much will be said of the legendary Martha Plimpton as the defiant and proud Tracey, but Clare Perkins should also be deserving of notice for her powerhouse performance as friend Cynthia, who becomes alienated from the community after taking a managerial position at the factory. From Emilia, Mrs Dalloway, and now Sweat, Perkins is three-for-three in a year of stunning lead roles, and I’m beyond excited to see what she does next.
Speaking of characters, Frankie Bradshaw’s set design is something to behold. The factory around which the community of Sweat has been organised is beautifully rendered by wrought-iron girders and rusted chains, while a counter, lit up with neon, perfectly captures a small-town bar. You can practically smell the stale beer, peanuts and, well, sweat.
This play is not one to miss. Sweat may be based in Reading, Pennsylvania, but it could easily be set anywhere in the de-industrialising West. While watching Sweat, I thought of towns across the United Kingdom who were similarly gutted when industries left, and the government did nothing to help. In such situations, it is easy to see why desperate people turn to dissolution, drugs, and the desperate logic of anti-immigration.
There is so much more to say about Sweat. In the interests of a conclusion, I’ll leave it to the words of one steel-worker of Reading who saw the play. Addressing Nottage and the crew, she said “I really appreciate that you do this, and call the play ‘Sweat’, because all we have to give is that.”
Sweat is showing at the Donmar Warehouse to January 26. Tickets available here.