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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Arifa Akbar

Word-Play review – amusing riffs on slippery language and politicians

Yusra Warsama in Word-Play by Rabiah Hussain at the Royal Court.
Yusra Warsama in Word-Play by Rabiah Hussain at the Royal Court. Photograph: Johan Persson

‘Words don’t crack bones … Do they?” asks a character in Rabiah Hussain’s play about language and the power to harm it carries. It opens in a Whitehall office, as we learn that the prime minister has used an offensive word (we never discover which) and refuses to apologise. His Downing Street press team scrabble around frantically, looking up synonyms for “sorry”, suggesting the PM put on a smart suit and brush his hair (who could this nameless premier possibly be based upon?).

We return to this scenario but there are other slices of life in fast-changing scenes that explore everything from the ripples of his gaffe on smug, north London dinner-partying couples to apparently “impartial” radio presenters.

As a play, it is boldly, excitingly experimental – the Whitehall scenes happen behind Rosanna Vize’s glass-box set design, there is a fast to-and-fro of WhatsApp messages being read aloud that lend satirical comedy and Xana’s rumbling compositions bring drama. But ultimately the play’s parts feel too scattered, abstract and fleeting. There is a deliberate sense of ellipsis – key words missing, scenes that are non-chronological and too brief – which render the arguments on language either too obvious or too gnomic.

Word-Play by Rabiah Hussain at the Royal Court.
Simon Manyonda (left) and Issam Al Ghussain in Word-Play by Rabiah Hussain at the Royal Court. Photograph: Johan Persson

Under the direction of Nimmo Ismail, five actors (Issam Al Ghussain, Kosar Ali, Simon Manyonda, Sirine Saba and Yusra Warsama) play a host of characters, often positioned in different parts of the auditorium. At one point, actors ask audience members to move out of their seats and proceed with a riff about theatregoing. It is amusing and original, but like other riffs, it stays surface–bound. A skit on the transport police slogan “See it. Say it. Sorted” is witty and so is one about the word “potatoes” but goes nowhere. Interrogations of the word “normal” hold promise but feel repeated and not probing enough.

Yet Hussain’s script shines in sudden moments of lyrical outrage and the actors do these scenes justice: a poetic monologue in which a character finds words rising up from her mother tongue, a university student speaking of the physicality of language and the way in which offensive words can lodge in the body. A father in a therapy session talking about failing his children because he has told them – the lie? – that language cannot harm them, and a powerful final scene of a mother and daughter terrorised by the government’s Prevent strategy. These are glimmers of a far more powerful play and we wish for more of them.

• Word-Play is at the Royal Court theatre, London, until 26 August.

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