It is good to see the Royal Shakespeare Company at least trying to shake up its new writing policy by placing playwrights alongside the house dramatist. Leo Butler’s response to The Tempest, I’ll Be the Devil, was a messy misfire, but Roy Williams’ raw and disturbing Days of Significance, bouncing off Much Ado About Nothing, is a stunning triptych of disillusion, pain and grim rioting among a group of white British market town youngsters caught up in a distant war they barely comprehend.
Instead of returning from a military campaign, as in Much Ado, Ben and Jamie are departing for Basra, and Ben’s “merry war of words” with his Beatrice, or Trish, is part of a drink-fuelled, obscenely conducted face-off between lads and “ladettes” outside a nightclub, with much joshing of the police and gruesome display of private parts.
This first half-hour of brawling, vomiting, strutting and foul-mouthed badinage is one of the most horrible and extraordinary I’ve ever seen in a theatre. Is it too much? Have you ever been in Torquay on a Friday night? But Williams’ writing is shot through with a sense of comic purpose and much foreboding and tenderness, especially between his second couple, his not so hard-hearted Hannah (Claire Louise-Cordwell) and the teenaged, tentative Jamie (Craig Gallivan).
In the second section, Ben (Jamie Davis) is conducting a desperate video conversation with Trish (Pippa Nixon) from the front line, where things are not going well. These filmed sequences in Maria Aberg’s rollercoaster production give way to the grim urgency of the conflict, superbly conjured by designer Lizzie Clachan, with a dying black sergeant (Mark Theodore) supervising a hopeless situation in a cul-de-sac behind barbed wire.
Williams has completed a re-write of the third section since the few Stratford-upon-Avon performances 15 months ago, inventing a wedding scenario for two others in the group of friends, the bozo beanpole Steve (Simon Harrison) and the fat, jolly, don’t-give-a-monkeys’ Clare (Beverly Rudd). This is a vast improvement, enclosing the grim centre panel with another terrifying, Breughelesque evocation of the sort of civilisation we suppose the Iraqis would be lucky to have instead of their own.
Incriminating photographs of the soldiers in Basra have started to appear, and Jamie is slated to go to court next morning. The room is flowing with drink, the toilets abuzz with gossip and insinuation. Hannah has a strangely ambiguous sexual scene with her stepfather, the burger stall-holder Lenny (James Clyde), and Trish is left smouldering bitterly on the sidelines.
The acting is electrifying, the play essential viewing, surely, beyond the performances scheduled in Kilburn to the end of March.
- Michael Coveney