‘Word-Play’ Review: Are Some Things Better Left Unsaid?

image credit: Johan Persson


It begins with an all-too familiar scene. The Prime Minister has said something racist—or “offensive”—again, and refuses to apologise for it. His impunity marks a stark contrast to his aides, who scramble to search for synonyms for sorry, and arrange image-boosting photo ops: “Please tell me it’s in Bradford or something?…Shropshire!”.

References to floppy hair and blustering demeanour hardly disguise Word-Play’s first target. And despite his misbehaviours, we all know his position in the polls is probably safe. But still, the mere ping of a WhatsApp message provokes a subtle twitch from all on stage, highlighting how the smallest interaction can cause a sudden change in politics—something we’ve all become accustomed to.

Rabiah Hussain writes from experience. Word-Play is, in part, the product of her own previous work in the Downing Street Press Office. It’s evident in the incisive critique of government programmes like Prevent (never mentioned), but also her effective, accessible communication, and means of delivering her message. She clearly takes pleasure in writing, and playing with the form of sentences, something she acknowledges as a particular privilege, having temporarily lost her use of language after a stroke.

The multi-roling cast are well-matched, and particularly strong in monologue. Kosar Ali and Yusra Warsama’s remark of sticks, stones, and the harm caused by words, make for especially moving moments. Director Nimmo Ismail nails the group scene of a privileged dinner party, in which a Bengali (not Indian) woman can no longer contain herself when her husband seasons her mother’s recipe to his tastes; a clever connection through food, between salt and assault

The Royal Court’s Jerwood Theatre Upstairs—a self-professed haven of experimentation—is once again transformed in the hands of designer Rosanna Vize. It opens with a glass window, which gives us an inside look into No. 10. LED surtitles, and black outs are used sparingly, to great effect. The back wall is obnoxiously scrawled with cartoons, boasting bright futures and multiculturalism. Unsurprisingly, for a play so targeted at our contemporary moment, Mickey Mouse was conspicuously absent. Perhaps it too was painted over during rehearsals, much like the one recently ordered to be removed from an asylum centre in Kent.

The bare, level stage permits some great breakings of the fourth wall. The cast move the audience out of their seats, to make way for them, as they take their seats at a liberal theatre performance. Eating ice cream—vanilla, of course—they boast of their efforts to assimilate, unlike their peers, who must try harder. It’s a critique which lands with a self-aware crowd; this literal forcing to change their point of view. But more, it refocuses attention on the subject, and how integration can produce other forms of inequality within communities (note too, journalist Samira Ahmed’s description of the so-called “ethnic script“). 

Word-Play opens with a familiar access point—and a reference to Enoch Powell’s ‘Rivers of Blood’—but better are the deep analyses of everyday exchanges. Hussain sometimes delves into how complex discourse is reduced to catchy phrases, like See It, Say It, Sorted. Unpacking the politics of semantics, and the semantics of politics, Word-Play makes us rethink the meaning of each word we use—different, normal, or important—and thus all we take as given or assumed.

But more often, we get the on-the-satire, like a radio journalist employing an impartiality beeper to hush her critically-thinking guest. She later praises a less free-thinking caller, who blandly comments on the Prime Minister’s status on both sides: “That’s exactly the answer we were looking for!”

Politics aside, Word-Play could delve further still into the philosophy of language. In some scenes, we see how words sit in the body, or shatter its bones on entry. Close focus and repetition gives words new meaning; we travel from a “wonderful home in Romford”, to another, “completely detached” in Highgate.

Even more interesting is Hussain’s exploration of the meaning of language in diasporas. Many characters use multiple languages at a time, or code-switch, depending on their role. In the final scenes, a young girl reconnects with her grandparents, and their “mother tongue”. Her ability to sign her name in another language is warmly celebrated, something that makes her “bigger”, more of a person. It is not a threat to her Britishness; we hear how she loved all of her names. Affording such plurality to a young girl is a powerful, but subtle, resistance to the marginalisation more often faced by migrants, and migrant women.

Implicit is the main faith in question—Islam—and also the different heritages of the Muslim characters in the play. A passing remark to Rumi, the great Persian poet, who also used Turkish, Arabic and Greek in his verse. Again, it doesn’t need to be made explicit. Some things are simply better left unsaid.

Word-Play runs at the Royal Court’s Jerwood Theatre Upstairs until 26 August 2023. 

Words by Jelena Sofronijevic

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