revew: James Fritz – Parliament Square
by James Fritz/
dir Jude Christian/
Royal Exchange Theatre/
CW: every external link in this revew is related to self-immolation in the UK
Man douses himself in petrol and threatens to set himself on fire at Ashton Job Centre
(this is not fiction)
I’ve got all these messy and confused thoughts about Parliament Square. I’ve spent a long time on this revew, not because I’ve been thinking it over especially but because I’ve had a crash, of sorts. I finished 700 words of this revew more than two weeks ago but then put it down and haven’t touched it. This revew as it is now is a hybrid of my immediate thoughts and my reflection on the way the show has grown in my mind since. My thoughts remain no less messy or confused.
My dislike of this production seems to have tapped into my general disdain for theatre in general right now. I’m tired and grumpy. At my most terse I could describe Parliament Square as a white middle class woman taking a long time to convince a black working class woman to kill herself. The form is the most interesting part about the published script but that fails to translate into the onstage version. In general, the content and form of James Fritz’s play are swaddled and strangely neutered, both by its own class politic and the production as a whole.
The central concept, which you might design marketing around, is that a woman, Kat, abandons her cosy middle class existence, travels to the titular square in front of parliament, and sets fire to herself, in protest against [non-specific global political situation]. This is the action of the first third, the directorial decision being to split Kat into two performers, one playing Kat and thinking aloud, the other a representative of her internal monologue. The result is a bit confusing and to be honest, I’d rather have Kat’s speech to herself cut totally from this section. She ends up repeating herself a lot.
One of Parliament Square’s core anxieties is around being incredibly reluctant to interfere with the safe, wholesome middle class family unit. Kat does set herself on fire, but surprises herself in surviving – meaning that by the third act she’s largely just an unremarkable mother and wife without a lot to do or say. The drama in this third act is that of Kat’s compounding mental anguish and angst. She’s disabled by her social situation, by her burns, by her husband, by the fearsome World Outside and by her guilt at having failed to achieve what she set out to do.
The most awful thing to happen in the third act is for the news to get more distressing. “This family literally move into a gated compound with 24/7 security staff – and I’m supposed to give a shit about them getting sad watching telly?” is what Angry James wrote when he first attempted this revew. My anger’s gone now, replaced with a sort of weariness. The middle class family’s material conditions are incredible cosy in Fritz’s script. Kat’s husband conveniently gets a better job, which enables them to move into a Secure Home.
Psychogeographer Anna Minton writes in her excellent book Ground Control about the tendency for people who live in more secure surroundings to feel less safe. When you live in a gated compound, with security staff and cameras and codes to keep you in, apparently, you are more likely to report that you are afraid of the risk of burglary. Ostentatious security breeds fear, and, rather successfully, a desire for more of it. Parliament Square is a paranoid comfortable family, convinced of their own precarity in a world that harms the people they are scared (and unable) to interact with.
Kat’s (and the play’s) only interactions with someone from outside her socio-economic class are with Catherine, who is as loosely defined as the rest of the play’s specifics but is coded as a black working-class Londoner. Catherine puts Kat out when she sees her set fire to herself. She is working class and well-meaningly clueless. She arrives in the second act, which Kat spends in hospital.
In the third act, Catherine returns years later, to tell Kat she finally understands what she was trying to achieve. There is a moment when Kat’s family’s means are overtly referred to. In a moment of distress, she offers Catherine money to leave her alone. Catherine is insulted, disgusted. Kat doesn’t fucking get it. But I don’t believe that this play understands what ‘it’ is that Kat doesn’t get. She is middle class and well-meaningly clueless.
Parliament Square is set in the UK (or some short-distance future-version of it). It pretends not to be, whilst comically having its characters strenuously avoid any mention of place names. This non-specificity marbles the whole play and gets frustrating. No one mentions any specific political events. Even when Kat tells her husband she’s at the Square (presumably hundreds of miles from their home) rather than saying something like “What? In fucking London?” he conveniently needs no further clarification and carries on with the conversation. In a play about acting out as a reaction to a political situation, it seems daft that every character is either intuitive or uncaring enough to not need to mention what they’re talking about.
I think Parliament Square fundamentally misunderstands the socio-political context of self-immolation. At best it comes across as a co-opted neat trick to force the audience to imagine something shocking. At worst it’s a bizarre sort of appropriation. As a rule, people who self-immolate are not white, well-off, British and middle class. The thought exercise of imagining someone fitting that profile failing to accomplish the feat doesn’t illuminate anything I can see. Comfortable people don’t tend to care that much.
It troubles me that I see in this play so many themes that I connect with and want to see explored, and that I disagree almost universally with the way they are handled. I suppose there’s a point very early in the development of this play where it diverged from a path to being something that fit with the way I see things. I’m an admirer of the way Fritz treats a text, how he presents his ideas with conscious engagement with form. The shape of the script is probably my favourite thing about this show. Everything before and beyond that feels like a sidestep away from a show I might’ve enjoyed.
I’m not really offended or upset by Parliament Square, just quietly baffled. It has served to remind me what the consequences of the overwhelmingly middle class landscape of British theatre are. That landscape shapes how our theatre buildings function, how work is made and presented, its content and the standards we hold it to. It’s everywhere, the air is sick with it. Increasingly I’m feeling like I can’t relate or approve of huge chunks of this messy clumsy industry. Sometimes it motivates me, sometimes it doesn’t. Perhaps it’s a good thing that my response to shows I see is becoming more personal and more emotional, maybe I’m more in touch with something, at least.
(At the end of the play, Catherine (who saved Kat from burning) sets herself on fire, with Kat’s encouragement. This is played as some kind of powerful moment of jouissance but all I felt was death. All I saw was a black woman dying as a white woman watched. The audience are told nothing about what happens as a result. This is the end of the play, go home. I feel empty about this moment, this expenditure of a black working class life in an explosion of glitter and light. The most interesting character reduced to the value of a full stop.)
In another universe Parliament Square is an absurd farce. In another, perhaps it is angry and violent. In this, I don’t know what it has done, not really. I’ve been using theatre, consciously and unconsciously, as a tool for diagnosis for a long time, it feels. Parliament Square is, has been, another useful tool. If nothing else, a product of the world I am seeing and a part of.