Stuart King

Review: WORD-PLAY at Royal Court, Jerwood Upstairs

Following an operation to remove a brain tumour, playwright Rabiah Hussain suffered Asphasia, an inability to read, write, speak and understand words. Her new theatre piece WORD-PLAY currently occupies the Jerwood Upstairs space at the Royal Court and serves as a timely reminder of the power of words — especially when abused by politicians.

Simon Manyonda and Issam Al Ghussain in Word-Play at the Royal Court Jerwood Theatre Upstairs. Photo Johan PerssonSimon Manyonda and Issam Al Ghussain in Word-Play at the Royal Court, Jerwood Theatre Upstairs. Photo Johan Persson.

Whilst Hussain has largely recovered from the condition through re-learning and feeling the meanings of words, clearly the experience has left an indelible mark on her conscious thinking. The result is a play composed of jarring and thought-provoking vignettes.

Triggered by a Prime Ministerial gaff, the bumbling blond’s coterie of inner sanctum advisers go into meltdown, exhausting options in their bid to spin their way out of trouble. Happily the play develops into something significantly more profound than a lambasting of an entitled political elite. From the get-go, it examines how even a throw-away, seemingly innocuous remark can be consciously used to assert hierarchy, causing ethnic multilingualism to be downgraded as something inferior when compared with any (bizarre) notion of Anglo-Saxon British purity and superiority.

The segments are by turns tense, energised, subtly observed, aggressive, gently reflective, expletive-strewn, frustrating, plain funny, and nearly always capable of eliciting nods of agreement and disapproving shakes of the head from the thoroughly engaged audience members. It’s the kind of raw, considered writing which offers an intuitive insight into what it means to be othered in a country obsessed with what is normal— whatever the hell that meaningless word is meant to stand for these days.

Directed by Nimmo Ismail the cast of 5 (Isaam Al Ghussain, Kosar Ali, Simon Manyonda, Sirine Saba and Yusra Warsama) are universally strong and confident in their delivery of multitudinous characters whose nuanced and well-observed contributions create a wholly worthwhile, entertaining and meaningful piece of contemporary theatre.