Anyone who has spent any length of time on the internet in the past few years is highly likely to have come across the phrase “there is no ethical consumption under capitalism”. This is usually accompanied by some terrifying graphic which show dozens of smaller brands that are all in fact subsidiaries of some behemoth like Nestlé or Coca Cola. The idea is that essentially, no matter how much you try to avoid the big bad wolves of consumerism – those companies pouring oil into the ocean or ripping out the rainforest – you end up lining their pockets anyway. In modern society unless you decide to go live in a cave in the woods, sustaining yourself on nothing but the fruits of nature, we’re all collaborators in the violence of capitalism. Whilst An Injury – a new play from Kieran Hurley – extends it’s focus it a little further, looking more closely at the effects of our continuing involvement in the Middle East, it’s enduring message is that no matter how much distance we try to put between ourselves and the actions perpetrated on our behalf abroad; we are all complicit.
It’s been a long time since I’ve seen a piece of such pared back theatre, the set nothing more than four chairs and an ambiguous hanging block which looked both brain-like and decidedly faecal. The room itself was stiflingly warm and a little smoky, which didn’t feel completely inappropriate for the subject matter. The play looks at the story of a drone pilot, a data entry administrator, an aspiring political journalist, and a nine-year old Arabic girl. Four actors (Khalid Abdalla, Julia Taudevin, Yusra Warsama, and Alex Austin) take turns playing each character, leaning on body language to maintain a unifying sense of personality – an impressive feat which they all achieve with varying levels of success. Each brought something a little different to their portrayal, a touch more vulnerability here or an added layer of desperation there. I had my favourites for each; Taudevin brought a believable sense of resigned duty to the drone pilot, whilst Abdalla made for by far the most likeable version of Danny the political journalist. This swapping of roles added to the message that all our acts are interconnected, that no matter whether you’re actually that person pressing the button which drops a bomb on a village half way across the world, somewhere along the line you had a part to play.
In by far my favourite scene in the play, Danny the political journalist – a man who hates the idea of keyboard activism but is pretty much the definition of it – sits in a car with Morvern the administrator. Morvern’s role in all of this is that she works inputting the names of asylum seekers who have been refused entry to the country. At times she recites the names of them to herself, a roll call of refugees who are being set back to the violence and terror they’ve tried to escape. In an attempt to maintain peace of mind in the face of such work, Morvern took to listening to motivational tapes which espoused peppy quotes and Eastern philosophy. This car scene follows a minor mental breakdown for both Danny and Movern, a slip up in their charade of normality and a moment of actual violence, and the two struggle to explain their opposing belief systems to the other. Morvern offers up Jainism, the idea of bringing peace through treating the world with kindness and achieving change through gentle nudges in the right direction; like a stream of water eventually carving a path for itself down the hillside. Danny feels the opposite way, he angrily points to a quote he feels is often misused at political marches: “No justice, no peace”. It doesn’t mean, “we don’t have justice, we don’t have peace”, he explains, it means until we have justice than they will have no peace (whatever “they” is the enemy this time, the government, the corporation, the man).
Here we have the crux of the matter; can you achieve change through inaction? Can you achieve positive change through violence? As I’m writing this, in the very recent past there have been riots on the streets of London in protest of the death of Rashan Charles in police custody. This is one protest amongst thousands which are currently happening across the world at this time. We’re living in a climate where it feels like every day there is a new march, a new riot. The far-right is sweeping Europe and we have President Trump pandering to the alt-right and “ethno-nationalism”.
This has added fuel to a rising resistance movement, an opposing force; peaceful groups like Black Lives Matter mobilising to fight back. Danny is on the side of this resistance, but feels like violence is sometimes a necessity, returns again and again to an image of Nelson Mandela with a machine gun in his hand. He berates Movern for her harmlessness, sees her inaction as complicity in the evil acts being perpetrated by higher powers. Well that’s all well and good, Movern answers (and I’m very much para-phrasing here) but sometimes just the act of trying to live seems to require monumental energy. Trying to survive in a job which sucks out your soul, with a boss whose very physical presence as he breathes behind you feels like an assault, can sometimes be too much. I think what resonated the most strongly with me in a play which could at times have fallen into the pitfall of being preachy, is that it seems to acknowledge that whilst yes, we should all try to improve things for the better, to fight back against unfair systems, sometimes just actually just getting on with living is struggle enough.
An Injury is a neat piece of social commentary, which strives to be both relevant in its politics and humour – a moment where Danny tries to mansplain what mansplaining is got a big laugh. It isn’t always, however, the slickest of productions. The flubbing of lines combined with the use of leather bound books as props which contained the full script, gave it the feeling of a rehearsal. The play does call for the characters to speak at length and speed, but if Billie Whitelaw is able to perform Beckett’s Not I without a script to hand, that’s not really a justifiable excuse. There is also only so much some dynamic lighting and four constantly re-arranged chairs can do to stretch an audience’s imagination; it feels difficult to escape from your awareness of the actors as just that.
Kieran Hurley’s script is richly written but as a whole a little too ambitious in it’s subject matter, getting tangled up at times in the complexity of the issues it’s looking at. An Injury is a valiant effort at encapsulating the inherent violence of the system we live in and the struggle of individuals to escape it, it’s just an effort which could do with a little polishing. Like the kind of lengthy foreign film that critics rave about but isn’t available at your local Odeon, intellectually it felt nourishing but didn’t necessarily tempt one to a second viewing.
An Injury was performed in late July 2017 at London’s Ovalhouse Theatre.