Written in 2015, Sweat is Lyndsey Nottage’s second Pulitzer Prize winning play, preceded by Ruined, written in 2009. The story is set in Reading, Pennsylvania, an industrial town in which generations of residents have worked in its various plants, mills and factories, and went straight from high school to “blue-collar jobs” that were supposed to be theirs for life. Flitting between 2000 and 2008, we see many of these workplaces get phased out and eventually closed under the Bush administration. Sweat examines the impact of those at the top, the men in suits crunching numbers and moving around figures, on those at the bottom, the working-class, salt of the earth citizens who fall victim to the unbeatable power of capitalism.
The long and short of it is: Sweat is nothing short of outstanding. The combination of Nottage’s writing and the impeccable talent of the cast make for a bulletproof show. It’s funny, it’s angry, it’s properly sad. Perhaps most importantly, it has something to say. Never have I seen a play that so accurately depicts the dynamic that arises in working-class communities when desperation rears its ugly head. Sweat gives voice to a minority group that so often goes unheard: the modern working class. Nottage has performed an incredible feat in her depiction of just how quickly things can go sour for those of us at the bottom of the food chain, those deemed replaceable by corporations and politician. In her two years living alongside the subjects of her play, she has understood how lives such as these are governed by money, worrying about it, and trying to get enough of it to keep their heads above water.
The cast, I believe, are due a lot of credit for Sweat’s brilliance. They are all incredibly fine actors. From Will Johnson as Brucie, the textile mill worker turned drug addict after he loses his job, to Stan (Stuart McQuarrie), the veteran bar owner who acts as the whole town’s therapist. A trio of close-knit friends, Cynthia (Clare Perkins), Tracey (Martha Plimpton) and Jessie (Leanne Best), have all worked at the same plant for over 20 years, along with their sons Jason (Patrick Gibson) and Chris (Osy Ikhile) – all give fantastic performances. When Cynthia gets promoted and the plant starts downsizing, tensions rise, and everyone is looking to point a finger. They begin happy, drinking, dancing and flirting in Stan’s bar, but as their situation worsens, they turn on one another. Anyone with aspirations is deemed a traitor. Anyone viewed as ‘other’ is accused of stealing jobs. It’s hard to watch, the way the community eats itself alive when put in such a pressure cooker.
Under Lynette Linton’s direction, Nottage’s story is truly heart-breaking. Moments like when Jessie, when reminiscing on her 43rd birthday and reciting the list of countries she’d planned to visit in her youth, says “sometimes I think about that Jessie on the other side of the world, and what she might’ve seen” through tears, are devastating. Despite being set in the rustbelt of America, the parallels that Sweat draws with modern Brexit Britain, a place where foodbanks and homelessness are at an all time high, are sadly uncanny. Well-executed, moving, and incredibly important, Sweat is unmissable.
Sweat is playing at the Donmar Warehouse until 26 January 2019. For more information and tickets, visit the Donmar Warehouse website here.