About Word-Play

Thursday 10th August 2023

Simon Manyonda and Issam Al Ghussain in Word-Play. Photo: Johan Persson
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Yesterday I went to the Royal Court to see Rabiah Hussain’s Word-Play, which had originally been scheduled for last year and is now playing in the Theatre Upstairs studio space. Starting with a political incident, in which the nameless Prime Minister — pretty obviously Boris Johnson — goes off script and says something offensive about Muslims, the play explores the power of language. Using old sayings such as the “sticks and stones” one, in a series of brief sketches, the 80-minute show illustrates how the words we use can effect the world, either positively or negatively, mainly negatively. The clever thing about the overall scenario is that Johnson’s offensive words are never specified, so each audience member can imagine a different insult. As the PM’s press office struggles to mitigate the damage of the offence, a number of other short scenes question the social impacts of language: a man questions his girlfriend about her phrase that he is “different” from others (does she mean other Muslims, or other migrants, or what?); a dinner party chat in Highgate hypocritically avoids being explicit about racial prejudice; a non-white father wishes he had better prepared his kids to live in racist Britain. There is humorous material about the language of texting and playful stuff about “impartiality” in broadcasting. The strongest scene comes last: a mother and little daughter are brutalized by immigration officers because the child has used “foreign” words at school. Although some of the passages — the London transport police’s “See it. Say it. Sorted”, or the ones about words like “normal” or the surreal one about “potato” — are amusing, the plotless piece does lack a coherent argument. Perhaps the most interesting sections are the ones that show how language has a physicality as well as a cerebral meaning, but they never go beyond the sketch show format. Still, Nimmo Ismail directs an excellent cast — Issam Al Ghussain, Kosar Ali, Simon Manyonda, Sirine Saba and Yusra Warsama — on designer Rosanna Vize’s bare set, where blue plastic chairs are the main prop. But as the mention of key racist phrases, such as “Rivers of Blood”, suggests, historically words do have the ability to change the world — and can act as police as well as freedom fighters.

© Aleks Sierz

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