“Freedom of speech is all well and good but it doesn’t matter if we’re not listening to each other” explains Sam Steiner, writer of award-winning play Lemons Lemons Lemons Lemons Lemons. But what happens if that freedom is taken away? Emerging from a period of turbulent student politics, Lemons is a witty exploration of communication through the eyes of a couple grappling with a governmentally imposed 140 daily word limit.
On average, each person uses around 16,000 words per day. It’s interesting to think about what that number might be if we were to only count words of value, words that convey meaning or develop relationships or ideas. Qualifiers, small talk, placing your carefully curated McDonald’s order – even without all of these word-wasters, your daily word count would far exceed 140. Steiner laughs as he recalls one audience member leaving the theatre exclaiming “I used twelve words just then!” But in the world of the play, 140 is all that you have – barely enough words to sing a pop song, never mind to start and finish an argument, get to know a new person or to tell your loved ones how much they mean to you.
“Until you’re forced to think about it, I don’t think you realise how wasteful you are and how much you rely on language and the nuances of language”, actor Euan Kitson explains. As the word limit in the play is completely indiscriminate, a more powerful word doesn’t count as more or less of your word limit – “It forces you to reflect upon the very intrinsic needs to speak to communicate and what happens if that’s reduced,” Kitson tells me, with Steiner adding “Some people know how powerful words can be and use them to their own advantage.”
Although the play is at times humorous and light hearted, the thought of such censorship of speech is a chilling one. “People use the saying ‘sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me’”, says actor Beth Holmes “but I think that’s absolute rubbish. Words can be so powerful.” Revolving the play around a couple makes it inherently personal and intimate – it makes us consider who we would save our words for if we had so few, and at times it’s the moments with no words that speak the loudest and are the most moving – nevertheless, it’s undeniable that the play tackles some vastly relevant and political themes.
When I ask if they think that the play is particularly relevant to the political and cultural climate of today, Holmes laughs and tells me “We get asked that all the time.”
“It’s interesting because I feel like every time we’ve performed the play people have put different meanings onto the political allegorical sense of it”, explains Steiner, and it’s not surprising – the play has been being performed during a period of vast political change. The first performance was January 2015, and the focus was mainly placed on Twitter and social media. After the 2015 election, the audience talked about it being an austerity play. Now, it is a play about Brexit. The political nuances of Lemons means that it can’t stagnate; it stays relevant as the political climate continues to develop.
Exploring the way that communication can be forced to change is a massive theme in Lemons. There have been hosts of films and plays created exploring the way that our increased reliance on social media can impact our face-to-face communication, and this changing communicative environment is something that Steiner and the cast of Lemons are very aware of. “Twitter is the best and the worst of the internet”, Steiner tells me and Kitson draws on Caitlin Moran’s analogy that the internet, in its lifespan, is still an infant. “If it’s a brain then it’s built like an infant’s brain,” he explains, “It reacts in incredibly simplistic ways – it shouts, it has tantrums, it laughs at incredibly basic stuff, and I think we’re just kind of living through the terrible twos of the internet.”
“I think that at the moment the internet is sort of a parliament of the loudest voices, and stuff like the way that posts on social media are shared and favourited means that there’s a quite damaging populism that often overrides nuanced conversation,” Kitson tells me. It also makes us feel like we’re always on display and we’re always trying to impress on some level, with Holmes telling me “I think it can be much more damaging on a personal level than a social level.”
It’s a beautiful thing when tastes and circumstances collide, and that’s what happened with Lemons. “There were a lot of bare-stage, small-cast shows around at the time that we drew inspiration from…shows that were quite minimalist and character-driven but had a big world outside of the play”, Steiner tells me. This vision of a simple stage design and small cast worked perfectly with the company’s budget, and Steiner and director Ed Madden knew that they wanted to work with Holmes and Kitson. “We were saying yesterday how lucky we are that we like each other”, jokes Holmes when asked about her experiences of being in a two-person show. “You feel really in control of it”, adds Kitson, “There’s no tech that can go wrong, any trouble that we get into we can get out of. I feel quite calm actually.”
As we continue to discuss the logistics of such a small cast, it’s interesting that the discussion unwittingly turns back to communication, with Holmes telling me how she and Kitson can use eye contact and small movements to communicate on stage without the audience knowing. “We’ve really gotten to know and understand each other as actors”, she tells me. Perhaps it’s a lack of this type of unspoken understanding and communication between the two characters of the play that makes the word limit so difficult. “Small things you do can have massive reverberations and consequences, and I don’t know if a lot of relationship dramas necessarily focus on a breakdown of communication in a relationship,” Steiner tells me.
Lemons Lemons Lemons Lemons is currently on tour. More details of dates and venues can be found here.