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Review: Always Orange/Fall of the Kingdom, Rise of the Foot Soldier (RSC)

Fraser Grace and Somalia Seaton's new plays run as part of the RSC's Making Mischief festival

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

Always Orange: *** / The Rise of the Foot Soldier: ***

New writing is the lifeblood of theatre – even a theatre that has at its core the 400-year-old legacy of one William Shakespeare. Which makes it highly laudable and much to be welcomed that the Royal Shakespeare Company is using its newly refurbished studio space at The Other Place in Stratford to stage challenging new work.

Part of the RSC's remit is undoubtedly to push boundaries, champion difficult material and shine a light on our modern world. Launching a summer festival of short plays, running under the headline banner Making Mischief, these first two (of four) are billed as "radical new plays" offering "daring explorations" of what is unsayable in this country in the 21st century.

A great idea, and one ripe for examination, if the packed houses are anything to go by. If only the results had been more, well, dramatic.

Both pieces – the first by Fraser Grace exploring our reaction to Islamist extremism, the second by Somalia Seaton about the racial divide – are angry. Rightly so, you might conclude after being exposed to the insidious dangers of radicalisation or the iniquities facing black teenagers.

It's far too politically sensitive to even attempt, as a middle-aged, middle-class white male, to comment on the philosophical or political content of either play. Like the hopelessly liberal white teacher whose good intentions are worthless in the face of harsh reality, I have no concept of what it's like to be on the other side of the divide.

But as pieces of dramatic performance the plays need to stand on their own two feet, and both suffer the same awkward problem: their arguments are presented as polemic, with dialogue consisting primarily of superficial sloganeering. The effect is to undermine their impact, reducing the complex, worthy topics to little more than ranty agitprop.

That's not to say they don't pack a punch. Always Orange, in particular, is staged with imagination and clarity by director Donnacadh O'Briain, and some inventive visual techniques add considerably to the staging. Ifan Meredith is moving and bewildered as the lost soul whose survivor guilt after a suicide bomb attack provides the thread that tenuously holds the piece together.

In Fall of the Kingdom, Rise of the Foot Soldier, Laura Howard's impressive teacher is equally bewildered by the fallout from a racially-inspired incident that touches one of her students, and she represents the mystification of a white middle class that has no idea how to react to the modern world. Seaton also throws in a clunky chorus of one-dimensional caricatures, all wearing cardboard boxes on their heads, presumably designed to denote the one-dimensionalism of many of the arguments currently being aired. But the device is heavy-handed and gets in the way of a potentially emotional story, and the power of the personal is ultimately subsumed by the political.

The saddest thing, it seems to me, is the bleakness of the vision. Neither writer seems able to peer beyond the relentless horror of violent extremism, ethnic victimisation and barely latent racism to find any note of optimism. Yes, we know it's a particularly terrifying world out there right now, but we knew that before we went into the theatre. By the end of this unsettling evening, we're none the wiser.

Making Mischief festival runs in repertory at The Other Place, Stratford-upon-Avon, until 27 August 2016.

Running time: 1 hour 10 minutes / 1 hour