“Do you see a rise in social harmony on the horizon?”
Between this interview for the Evening Standard and the three pages of programme notes that accompany the playtext, Anders Lustgarten clearly sees conventional theatre as a challenge to be met and his play for the Royal Court – If You Don’t Let Us Dream, We Won’t Let You Sleep – certainly aims to be different. Fitting into Dominic Cooke’s brief to shake up the archetypal middle class audiences at the Sloane Square venue, it offers a illuminating deconstruction of the politics and economics of austerity and promises an alternative but where the first point is definitely delivered, the second remains somewhat unrealised.
Lustgarten has imagined a world not at all dissimilar to our own with the impact of a financial system in meltdown unfurling insidiously throughout society. With traditional avenues closed to them, City financiers plot new ways of making money and alight on the idea of Unity Bonds, wherein “problem families can now be monetised” by the bankers betting on social disorder increasing whilst officially being incentivised by it going down. But this is just the start of a series of short scenes, the rest of which focus on a society which is fast unravelling. Prisons, hospitals, schools all feel the shockwaves of this approach, as services become depersonalised in the endless rush to meet targets and frustrations boil over into violence.
It’s a compelling view of a dystopia that doesn’t feel too far removed from our own reality and is blessed by some superb performances from the cast of eight who cover multiple roles in the ever-shifting scenes. Daniel Kendrick’s angry young man, Ferdy Robert’s oleaginous financier, Lucian Msamati’s compelling abuse victim, Susan Brown’s frustrated but innately good nurse, Laura Elphinstone in everything she does, Lustgarten’s characterisations may not have time to really take hold but their dialogue has real bite. And in Simon Godwin’s deliberately austere production, sans décor, there’s an almost playful atmosphere against the harsher reality of the material.
But by the time we reach the final extended scene, where a group of dissidents – bringing together some of the characters we have previously met – converge on a disused building to create a Court of Public Opinion where they intend to…well I couldn’t really tell you exactly what they were going to do aside from ‘challenge the status quo’ and put something or somebody on trial, it is clear that Lustgarten’s frenetic energy has expended itself. And though we’re only 70 minutes in by this point, he opts to stop, rather than develop a piece of involving drama out of this scenario, which is a shame as it does feel full of potential.
Leaving the theatre, one could feel a little dissatisfied as something which starts off so confrontational and yet backs away as the going gets tough. But reading around the playwright’s intentions, it is possible to see that the blurb on the back of the playtext may have gone a little too far in promising an alternative vision to austerity, where Lustgarten may have been more interested in providing us with the stimulus to think of our own by breaking down perceived complexities around economics. That’s my take on it but it certainly isn’t one which is immediately clear (nor necessarily correct) and so I’d say approach this with caution – aim to get £10 tickets on a Monday rather than splashing out for full price.