Superb Donald Trump plays prove spiky and savage

As the inauguration approaches, Sarah Crompton visits Theatre503’s new play festival ”Top Trumps” and discovers how theatre can shine a light on the issues

Laurence Ubong Williams and Trieve Blackwood-Cambridge in Hardcord by Roy Williams
Laurence Ubong Williams and Trieve Blackwood-Cambridge in Hardcord by Roy Williams
© Jeanie Jean Photography

On the eve of President Donald Trump’s inauguration, I resisted the temptation to drown my worries in the bar and headed up the stairs at the Latchmere Pub in south London, to Theatre503.

The idea of staging Top Trumps – a festival of 12 short plays on the theme of the 45th President and his first 100 days – is a good one. And given the speed of delivery (just over a month for the writing, and a week for the rehearsal of the excellent ensemble) the quality of the evening is exceptional – rich and multi-faceted.
The writers ranged from the established – Roy Williams, Caryl Churchill, Neil LaBute – to the rising and the simply promising. Their subject matter was equally broad. Williams offered a savage short on divisive attitudes among black voters; Churchill a humane and extremely funny vision of the way marrying a Trump supporter can affect a liberal family, which simultaneously smuggled in the idea that their essential motivations might not be so far apart.

The writers tried to understand what is happening in the US rather than simply satirise it

Family relations were also at the heart of A Stronger Arm, a striking verbatim play by Chris Adams interviewing his own Trump voting mother who reveals why she had chosen to put her faith in the orange-haired one. That key question – exactly what he offers to ordinary working men and women – was incisively explored too by Lorna French, in the touching Baby Girl, and in Lily Bevan’s What Am I, which revealed (by dint of the game where people put labels on their foreheads) the level of hatred for Hillary that made voters turn against her.

Tearrance Arvelle Chisholm‘s strikingly original Glory: I Miss the Old Kanye, used the rapper’s lyrics to create a touching portrait of the death of a young black man in Chicago (and contained a terrific Trump imitation), while Hassan Abdulrazzak‘s Trump in Palestine made the pertinent point that a change of administration doesn’t necessarily signal a different view in the Middle East where successive administrations have failed to support the Palestinians.

The plays were spiky, spirited and often full of emotion

LaBute produced a ferocious dystopian vision of a future America, where the white population had thrived at the expense of all other races, and where women accepted sexual harassment as their due. K Isaac threw Nigel Farage and Theresa May into the mix and Helen Banner and Ryan Watson both discussed, in different ways, how language might change under Trump. Amanda Lane threw in a clown, who promised to "make theatre great again" as a binding thread.

The plays were, without exception, spiky, spirited and often full of emotion and thought and the acting was superb. But what was really impressive about the evening was its unpredictably. I think if I had been asked in advance what I expected it would have been a passionate stream of liberal diatribe against the new President, a howl of distress about the way things are heading. What I got was more satisfying. The point of view of the writers was clear, but these were works that all, in their way, tried to understand what is happening in the US rather than simply satirise it; they managed to move beyond a strict agenda into the human stories lurking beneath.

The aim was to show theatre’s power as a place to provoke discussion

This was very much the aim of Theatre503 in commissioning the season; to show theatre’s power as a place to provoke discussion and proper understanding of different points of view. That’s why each performance is followed by a talk on a key theme of the Trump ascendancy. In its open-mindedness, its willingness to listen as well as to respond, the evening did, in a small way, indicate what the arts as a whole might be doing in this time of constant and unsettling change.

Theatre can use its empathetic qualities to shine a light on what is going on, to bring different voices into the debate. In the end, as LaBute’s play chillingly foretold, the part of the world that believes in freedom and equality may have to rise up and fight – but at least it will do so with some understanding of what has happened and why.

Top Trumps runs at Theatre503 until 21 January.