Dominic Cooke's cross-cast promenade versions of The Winter's Tale and Pericles have been the highlight of the Stratford Complete Works season so far. Now the younger actors from that brilliant company reassemble in the same space - the Swan Theatre, gutted and reconfigured to dislocating effect - for Maria Aberg's hard-hitting walkabout production of Days of Significance.
Invited by the RSC to "respond" to Much Ado About Nothing, Roy Williams has come up with a fierce, funny feat of powerful empathy and political anger which uses the Shakespearean comedy as the launch pad for some sharp insights into the impact of the Iraq war on the English underclass.
Thrusting into the crowd of promenaders with an in-yer-face effrontery, the piece works partly by artful inversion. Instead of Shakespeare's demobbed courtly soldiers trying to find their feet in peacetime, young Jamie and Ben are squaddies from an English market town intent on getting laid and bladdered with the lads and ladettes on the eve of being dispatched to Basra. Ben and Trish are a crude, demotic makeover of Beatrice and Benedick, trading sawn-off insults rather than elegant barbs, while the eavesdropping, misunderstandings and slander that are the motor of Shakespeare's plot find echoes in the gossip falsely reported from the women's lavatories about the scared state of the soldiers.
From their angry, inarticulate disputes with the more educated members of the gang and from the vulnerability that Jamie (superb Ashley Rolfe) reveals to the thoughtful, self-confessed slapper Hannah (excellent Claire-Louise Cordwell), you get a strong sense of culturally limited soldiers who have only the haziest, slogan-level grasp of the futile war they are being sent to fight.
There is no condescending suggestion that, through educational deprivation, these men have no choice about how they behave in Iraq. But Williams does imply that English society has failed youths whose horizons do not reach much beyond binge-drinking at the weekend. The supposed superiority of the values the West wishes to export looks distinctly questionable when considered in this light. The great virtue of the play is its ability to see things from all sides and its refusal to sit in easy judgement.
Its middle scene follows the boys to Basra where Jamie Davis's compelling Ben - whose decline from horny, horse-playing show-off to dead-inside husk can be deduced from the darkening video messages he sends home to Trish - is reduced to shooting at unarmed children and winds up mortally trapped in an alleyway with another squaddie and a dying sergeant.
And the final stretch - set back in England and performed in austere, abstract fashion with the characters stepping on and off a bare rectangle of stage - examines the tangled feelings of their friends.
Williams, whose earlier plays have been praised for their depiction of racism, here impressively extends his range. His courage and humanity as a writer are evident in the way he distances himself from the college kids' politically correct mantras against the war (Dan, who began with all the right views, develops into one of the least pleasant characters) and instead charts the process by which Hannah achieves a greater emotional maturity.
Part of her wants to shut out a conflict that has killed Ben and landed her boyfriend Jamie in the dock for torturing Iraqi prisoners. Part of her is disgusted by Jamie's excuse that he was only following orders. And yet - in the capacity of a friend now, rather than a lover - she is finally prepared to stand by him at his trial because she can appreciate the appalling context and imagine the horror of not being able (as he claims) to feel anything.
Days of Significance is a packed and uneven piece (I never really believed in Hannah's pep-talking idealistic burger-selling stepdad with the repressed sexual longings). But it valuably shifts the focus from the powerbrokers, spot-lit in David Hare's Stuff Happens, to the powerless and broken.
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