Lynn Nottage's not to be missed play Sweat gets a perfect production at the Donmar with Lynette Linton directing
“Bottom Line, they don’t understand that human decency is at the core of everything. I been jacking all them years and I can count on my hand the number of times they said thank you.“
Lynn Nottage’s play Ruined was important and award winning. Intimate Apparel and Fabulation were also notable. With her latest play, Sweat, she becomes the first woman to have won the prestigious Pulitzer prize twice. Seen in the closing days of 2018, the last production in Josie Rourke’s reign at the Donmar Warehouse, Sweat is everything I could have hoped for.
Set in Reading, Pennsylvania, Sweat looks at blue collar workers in America and how after years of toiling for the same company they lose their jobs to cheaper labour, from immigrant communities within the United States, or to the residents of Mexico. Reading is a steel town and like Sheffield, in the 1997 film The Full Monty, is one which finds it is losing jobs to cheaper producers abroad. Of course what Lynn Nottage is cleverly documenting is the reason behind the political success of Donald Trump in the 2016 election with the support of blue collar Americans.
Nottage’s play is framed by future scenes of two young men, sons of workers at Olstead’s factory, Chris (Osy Ikhile) and Jason (Patrick Gibson) initially in their interviews with a probation or parole officer. Frankie Bradshaw’s set is heavy industrial, huge pipes, hooks on chains, girders and rusted pipes set high above the stage. Onstage, covers are removed and a bar set is revealed where three of the Olstead women workers gather to celebrate. The barman Stan (Stuart McQuarrie) runs the bar with a busboy Oscar (Sebastian Viveros). Customer Jessie (Leanne Beat) is pretty much wasted but Cynthia (Clare Perkins) and Tracey (Martha Plimpton) are also well oiled but coherent.
We hear about Cynthia’s husband, Brucie (Wil Johnson) who has been on strike and is locked out by his factory management for 93 weeks. He had issues with drugs and has stolen from Cynthia. Stan, the bar owner, left Olstead’s after an industrial accident and has his own opinion on how little the management did for him. Nottage constructed her play after research with the residents of Reading and the play is detailed and authentic as it traces how Cynthia is promoted off the factory floor but is manipulated into becoming an apologist for management. She is of course branded a traitor.
The playwright cleverly uses her characters to tell us what the issues are at the factory. Workers are asked to take a drop in wages and an increase in hours and a loss of benefits like retirement pensions. A leaflet in Spanish advertising opportunities at Olstead’s is found by Oscar, reduced wages for the workers who have been there for forty years but a step up for Oscar from clearing bar tables. News bulletins give us the news on presidential elections as well as local items of Reading news.
Lynette Linton’s direction is pitch perfect and we note that she is the newly appointed artistic director of the Bush Theatre, the career path that Josie Rourke took before arriving at the Donmar, after Michael Grandage. All the cast are believable but I will single out Martha Plimpton’s complex acting role as the worker betrayed by her employers and her best mate. Osy Ikhile too has a promising future, here as Cynthia’s son Chris. Clare Perkins’ part is pivotal as the ambitious woman offered the poisoned chalice.
I think Sweat is the best new play I have seen this year.
My only reservation on first seeing is that we cannot solve this problem. In the UK, the steel industry and the mines are almost closed. If America is the richest country in the world, why is it that some of its workers are so near the poverty line? Whereas once the role of the unions was to protect workers, now labour is outsourced abroad and the unions are powerless to stop that. It is indeed the Age of De-Industrialization in the Western world. What Sweat does is to explain to the theatre going classes why people voted for someone who promised them a future.
Written by Lynn Nottage
Directed by Lynette Linton
Director: Lynette Linton
Designer: Frankie Bradshaw
Lighting Designer: Oliver Fenwick
Sound Designer and Composer: George Dennis
Movement Director: Polly Bennett
Video Associate: Mikaela Liakata
Fight Director: Kate Walters
Running Time: Two hours 20 minutes with one interval
Closed at the Donmar Warehouse on 2nd February 2019.
Transferred to the Gielgud 7th June to 20th July 2019.
The Donmar Warehouse
41 Earlham Street
London WC2H 9LX
Tube: Covent Garden
Website: Donmar Warehouse
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge at the Donmar Warehouse
on 20th December 2018