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‘Word-Play’: Politician’s loose words examined in fun, disturbing and powerful way in new theatre drama… (review & writer talk)

‘Word-Play’: Politician’s loose words examined in fun, disturbing and powerful way in new theatre drama… (review & writer talk)

Rabiah Hussain’s latest work asks big and important questions… and the writer then talked about the background and motivations behind it, including having to overcome a serious health condition in writing it and how this work has been affected by it…

CLEVER and intriguing in several ways – the essential presentation of ‘Word-Play’ as a series of scenes or vignettes may not work for everyone.

Most are of the duration between 10-20 minutes and some work brilliantly, while others are a little hard to follow and a little too enigmatic – or poetic and might work better as simply spoken word presentations.

There can be little doubt though the Hussain is a talented playwright and has much to offer in ‘Word-Play’ on the subjects of language, power, and real world consequences, if we can put it like that.

The play starts with two voices who discuss “a moment” and then transfers to No10 Downing Street press office.

Performer: Simon Manyonda & Issam Al Ghussain
Pic: Johan Persson

That very first dialogue in the play text is described as “Rivers of Blood” – a controversial adlibbed speech delivered by an unnamed prime minister on live TV, in this play.

There are some loose allusions in the text to a prime minister with messy hair and offending a community – though it isn’t explicitly stated which…

The scenes in the press office are done behind a glass screen and in front of the audience in a typical two-dimensional theatrical set up, while most of the action takes place in the middle with the arrangements of seats on three sides and very minimalist sets and props – sometimes no more than a chair.

The dialogue in this opening is quick-fire and sharp and at times hard to follow.

Nevertheless, we are off to a dynamic, fast paced start and we do return towards the end to the same office and the aftermath of the prime minister’s controversial words.

This is Hussain’s excellent starting point – she then examines how the prime minister’s words play out in different social contexts, some related, some not.

The fact that he has alienated one section of the population bothers some, while thrilling others and Hussain takes us on a journey which is about context and how a politician’s views can muddy not just political discourse but both actual personal and social relations – and we know too, that often violence is fomented when someone in authority who commands both power and respect, delivers a damning verdict on a minority community.

Performer Yusra Warsama

The strength here is that Hussain does not do the obvious – things are subtle and unsettling everywhere for the group the prime minister has singled out.

Two scenes are very powerful and what might be worth whole plays in themselves are featured in just minutes.

The ‘Hampstead couples’ dinner party starts innocuously enough – but descends into brutally defining dividing lines, even in a marriage; while the final scene is of a mother whose joyous visit ‘home’ with her young UK-born daughter to the land of her parents, ends with a painful ‘interrogation’ by the school.

Some might find the subtleties unnecessary, preferring something more muscular and in your face, but a diverse theatre culture should be precisely that and Hussain’s writing has power, craft and intelligence – it’s just that this format – which also takes in what’s app messages between a group of friends – sometimes dips, wanes, then rises, peaks and leaves you wanting more and director Nimmo Ismail’s eye isn’t to fault more generally…it’s a little mixed, but on the whole an interesting drama with strong performances from the cast of six and a range of very different characters and settings. (Sailesh Ram)
Acv rating: *** (out of five).

Losing her own language ability and inspiration that led to ‘Word-Play’

Downing St Press Office near end – Performers: Warsama; Al Ghussain; Ali; Mayonda; Sirine Saba

Suman Bhuchar writes…

THIS is a play about language, the power of words and their impact and the intention.

There was a post-show Q&A with the writer on Wednesday (August 3) – Rabiah Hussian talked about why she wanted to explore these subjects and how she came to write about them.

She was in conversation with Jane Fallowfield, literary manager at the Royal Court, who asked some questions, before opening it out to the audience who had seen the play that evening.

Hussain explained she was one of three writers to receive the first ever Royal Court /Kudos Television production Company fellowship in 2019. (The other writers were Lettie Precious and Ross Willis). This was a bursary of £10,000 allowing Hussain and the other writers to focus purely on writing for six months.

Performer Kosar Ali

She said she has always been interested in language and the effect it can have on people, especially those not in power.

The first scene she wrote – was the one set in the Downing Street press office (she has worked in political PR she revealed) and the audio of two people discussing the ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech which is the first scene of the play.

Hussain also talked about how she is recovering from a brain tumour and then developed aphasia – a language disorder she still lives with today. It makes you lose your memory and also creates difficulty in reading, writing, speaking and understanding words.

Rabiah Hussain

Husain explained she writes in English, but she can also speak some Mirpuri, Punjabi and Urdu and some feeling or rhythms of other languages come into her scenes. In terms of playwrights and language she is inspired by debbie tucker green.

Other questions raised were about the difference in the play script – which has the characters identified simply as A, B, C – letters of the alphabet, and does not have any stage directions. Hussain said she worked with the director, Nimmo Ismail and they created the look of the production, as well as choosing the five actors of were from a range of backgrounds to play the various characters.

There are several scenes of WhatsApp conversations with characters reading out their respective texts and Hussain said she had to get advice on keeping them short as she confessed she has a habit of writing long sentences.

There were also some questions around representation and specificity and the audience felt that that the play spoke to their experiences.

Hussain said she wanted to look at how people especially those of colour are marginalised and to find a way about the effect of this through language.

All pictures: Royal Court & Johan Persson


‘Word-Play’ by Rabiah Hussain continues (July 26) until August 26 (check listings for times, matinees and special performances, etc.)

*On Friday August 18 at 9.30pm Rabiah Hussain will be performing ‘My Voice Is…’ after the performance of Word-Play and this is a separately ticketed event (see separate link below)

‘Whilst writing Word-Play, a play about language, I lost my ability to communicate because of a brain tumour. As I rediscovered words, I also learnt something about myself as a writer. That my voice is…’ Rabiah Hussain

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Written by Asian Culture Vulture