21 December 2018 (released)
23 December 2018
Lynn Nottage won her second Pulitzer Prize for Sweat 2017 (her first was for ‘Ruined’ in 2009) and it’s easy to see why as this emphatically naturalistic portrayal of a slice of American life fearlessly addresses the impact of social and political change on individuals in small communities.
The intimate stage of the Donmar has been transformed into a large welcoming bar, with a flickering TV telling us it’s the Millennium and the end of the two term Clinton administration, when the economic bubble was just about to burst. Rusty steelworks reach high up into the eaves of the theatre and before long, bar manager Stan is joined by three working women, who come to get very drunk after a hard days work ‘in the plant’. The drama shifts between 2000 and 2008 where the women’s two adult sons, Jason and Chris are just coming out of prison to find a their world devastated by poverty.
Reading, Pennsylvania, where ‘Sweat’ is set, was cited as the poorest city of it’s size in the nation which prompted Nottage to spend two years investigating the collapse of this once profitable town with a team of research assistants. It is this research that forms the foundation of this very human drama where unemployment tears friends and families apart.
The implications of outsourcing manufacturing facilities and labour by US companies to Mexico and other countries is regarded as the leading source of economic collapse in states such as Pennsylvania, in conjunction with increased automation. For an English audience there are certain resonances with dramas about the social collapse of formerly vibrant manufacturing or mining towns in the eighties with burning resentment for ‘scabs’ who cross the line. But there’s no need to look further than the present day to see that when the economy takes a turn for the worse, people tend to blame immigrants. And as rage builds, anyone perceived as ‘different’ becomes a threat.
This truth lies at the heart of director, Lynette Lynton’s production of ‘Sweat’ where three women who have been closest of friends for years turn against each other and the unassuming Columbian bar worker becomes a target for their hatred. Tracey, played by Martha Plimpton, begins as the life and soul of the party, brash and irreverent, her descent into bitterness all too familiar. They all joke about Jessie,(Leanne Best) needing to go to rehab since her divorce, but no one round here really things re-hab is an option. Clare Perkins is outstanding as Cynthia, the only African American of the trio who has been promoted from the shop floor and unlike her white friends, saved from being ‘locked’ out from the plant they have all worked in since high school. Caught between her own determination to survive and the bonds of twenty years of friendship it is a performance vibrating with pain.
What shifts the narrative in ‘Sweat’ from it’s gradual decline is the eruption of explosive violence which has led to the eight year imprisonment of Tracey and Cynthia’ sons, Chris and Jason. Credit should be given to fight director Kate Waters for a remarkable stage fight that brings Sweat to a heart-stopping conclusion.