From the outset, For the Sake of Argument is obsessed with the virtue of a well-made point: as its protagonist Eleanor Hickock (Ashleigh Cole) professes, “my friends and I, as well as anybody that I associate with regularly, believe in the unchallengeable authority of argument”. Ironically, then, for a play with such an overt fixation, Harry Darell’s production utterly fails at conveying its viewpoint: if there is an argument being made, it’s so smothered by unengaging characters and unnecessary debates, in an ineloquent presentation that it’s impossible to know what it is, or why to bother figuring it out.
The play centres around Hickock, a talented and passionate young journalist who has garnered a reputation of being the 2003 Iraq War’s most evangelical supporter. In her weekly debate group meetings, in which she and other argument-loving intellectuals meet in a pub to discuss topical issues, she is confronted by the mother of a young man whom she inadvertently convinced to join the conflict and died consequently. Faced with the influence of her words, she must reflect on the impact her arguments have actually had.
Conceptually, the play could be strong: with tensions in the region heating up again, the production has the opportunity to offer a prescient exploration of the arguments surrounding the 2003 conflict, and their subsequent effects. Instead, Darell squanders this opportunity through a meandering plot and uninteresting characters – a killer combination.
Indeed, the play is initially structured around the debates the group of pseudo-intellectuals have: dated discussions on topics from years ago, of which nothing new is added and the plot simply stagnates during. It is only after 50 minutes that the first meaningful event actually happens; up to then, there is nothing engrossing about the drama as it slugs along. Moreover, the debates themselves stretch the suspension of disbelief to crazy lengths. Characters list dissertation-level amounts of information to each other in their advocation, to a degree where a) we don’t believe that any person, even experts on these subjects let alone hobbyist debaters, could possibly spout such details off the top of their heads and b) that it all just blurs together in a sycophantic mess.
Additionally, the characters are one-dimensional to the extreme: from angry alcoholics to dim cleaners, there’s nothing endearing about those on stage. Indeed, all the pseudo-intellectual debaters speak and act so similarly that, if they looked any more the same, it would be virtually impossible to tell them apart. The actors do their best to instil some personality and individuality into their drab roles – Arthur Velarde and Henry Eaton-Mercer do well to sell a spirited rivalry as Miles and Arthur, respectively – but unfortunately, it’s just not enough.
What is most vexing of all is that, for a conflict that has thousands of real-life casualties attached to it (of which any would make a rightfully compelling focus of the play), the playwright is content to make up his own. Indeed, Darell invents his own victim of the war, projecting onto him what he imagines their internal reasoning and emotional pathos may be. At best, this choice to commemorate a fictional soldier instead of a real one is confusing; at worst, it is down-right offensive. Weirdly, the production is epitomised by its set design by Amy Watts: pub décor on top of a massive sandpit. As the actors wade through the anachronistic sand, we’re sure there is some metaphorical message present here… but it’s so messily made that we can’t be sure what it is or if it’s worth trying to decode.
For the Sake of Argument is playing at the Bridewell Theatre until 8 February. For more information and tickets, visit the St Bride Foundation website.