Mancunians know a thing or two about protests. We’re famous for it. The city still remembers the Peterloo Massacre in 1819, where the city’s inhabitants had gathered to campaign for reform. The resulting tragedy, in which 15 people died, was enough to prompt change in the folks that sit in the Houses of Parliament.
It is that spirit that I feel embodies much of James Fritz’s award winning play, Parliament Square. Winning the 2015 Bruntwood Prize for playwriting, it is currently being staged by the Royal Exchange and tells the story of Kat. She’s not happy with the world and in the words of the play “gets up one morning, leaves her family behind, and travels to London to carry out an act that will change her life and, she hopes, everyone else’s.”
Those words carry a sombre note in this day and age. People travelling to London to commit acts that are life changing are still fresh in people’s minds. However, Kat is no stereotypical disillusioned radicalised young un who wants to avenge the world.
There is no let up from the get go. You’re bombarded with some jovial vocal jousting between the principal character of Kat, played by Esther Smith, and what transpires to be the voice in her head, played by Lois Chimimba. Those opening few bars to this sort of soliloquy sets the vibe of Fritz’s play. The struggle of Kat’s conscious and demons, so dramatically played out by Smith and Chimimba, is shown through the incessant exchanges. It’s unrelenting but at the same time there are moments when the pressure valve is released so that the full enormity of the actions can be absorbed by those watching.
Royal Exchange’s famous round stage is a wonderful setting to the claustrophobic nature to the unfolding events. The set is somewhat minimalistic, with everyday household objects strewn on the floor. This production is a great example of how you do not need to rely on fancy sets for all that razzmatazz. The use of lighting in particular aids the story in an ingenious way at times and director Jude Christian, along with Lighting Designer Jack Knowles, should be commended for a creative approach to storytelling.
The story of Parliament Square rests squarely on Smith’s shoulders. It’s her character that we first see. It’s her words. It’s her voice. Smith has to convey the inner turmoil of Kat. One minute you have to have the comedic wit of telling us about wanting a lasagne, the next you have to summon all that drama school learning to convey the act of aggression. And boy does she. As the play continues at its exhilarating pace and the events unfold, the tension ratcheting up at every notch, so does Smith’s portrayal of a person who is in turmoil.
There are quite a lot of things I liked about Parliament Square. Fritz’s play is really clever in dealing with the fallout of Kat’s actions. In fact I was taken with the way it dealt with the passage of time. Those short scenes in the hospital not only give the play a context in terms of time, it gives the audience an opportunity understand the supporting characters and how they are affected. The use of Happy Birthday later on is equally an imaginative method to not only convey time but also how the characters have moved on.
Nonetheless, there are issues that just cannot be overlooked. The play in unable to avoid the act that Kat carries out and that as a result dominates the story. It is unable to give it meaning or a context, to be fully explored, even though the production tries to play on the ‘why’ instead of the ‘what’ at times. They are never really examined to the extent that we are able to empathise with Kat’s anger.
By the end you’re left with a play that is really just giving you two alternatives if you are angry with the world, either commit unspeakable acts of terror or do nothing. And that unfortunately is something that I possibly cannot overlook in a production such as this.
The ending though is another example where you can forgive Fritz and the production company for its failing, because it embodies what makes Parliament Square such an effective bit of theatre. It’s able to take its ideas and leave the audience with a simple question that it can answer. It’s seriously impressive, the resounding finale of a crescendo in that you are almost shouting out your own answer as Kat delivers hers.
I’d urge anyone that has ever wanted to make a difference to go and watch Parliament Square, not just for the issues that are laid bare but with how they are laid bare, that all you need is someone acting their pants off, a set devoid of distraction, some fancy lighting and by the end more questions than answers.
Verdict: An exhilarating and an uncompromising portrayal of one woman’s political protest and the ramifications of her actions. It leaves you with more questions than answers but that’s the point.