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Waiting for Lefty, written by Clifford Odets in the 1930’s, is a piece of avant-garde agitprop theatre. In this new reimagining by Two Lines Productions, we see something rather ground-breaking, still. The director, Phil Cheadle, uses Zoom more effectively than any production I have seen since the pandemic started and the energy and frustration of the play positively radiates through my laptop screen as a result.
The play opens at a trade union meeting for cab drivers in New York who are suffering as a result of the Great Depression. Audio describing the real-world effects of crashes in the stock market sets us up for a grim tale, where working-class and middle-class people are violated at the expense of rampant capitalism. Through a series of vignettes, we see commonalities between disparate workers being exploited by their employers and its effect on patients, children and wives who also suffer as a result. Whilst we can perhaps rationalise that cab drivers would be so hard-hit in an economic crisis we then also see nepotism and corruption in perhaps the most noble of professions — medicine. Dr Barnes (played by John Moraitis) breaks the news to Dr Benjamin (played by Philip Arditti) that he is being fired from his job. Dr Benjamin suspects that the motivation has its roots in anti-Semitism towards him, but has no power to overturn the decision to replace him with the incompetent son of a senator.
In the first vignette we encounter Joe and Edna, a cab driver and his wife, played by Lisa Caruccio Came and Phil Cheadle. In a particularly poignant moment, Edna desperately reasons with Joe that she ‘just put the kids to bed so they wouldn’t know they missed a meal’. Rebecca Scroggs, playing Agate in the final scene, is effervescent with fury, rallying the trade union to ‘Strike, strike, strike’. Scroggs’s performance gives me chills as she leans into the camera, telling us that ‘we are dying by inches’ for the ‘debutantes and coming out parties’ of the omnipotent bosses’ families.
The design by Simon Kenny and technical production by Ashley Cowan is to be highly commended. The use of sound, music and multiple camera angles all work to create nearly cinematic moments that I never thought would be possible via Zoom and the actors are able to relate seamlessly to each other despite mostly being in separate locations. In this setting of the play, Zoom oddly seems to actually exist in the world of the 1930s as characters react to the sound of incoming online calls. Whilst unrealistic, it doesn’t matter at all — the suspension of disbelief so key to theatre is perfectly maintained in this online production.
Each night Jacquelyn Landgraf hosts a panel discussion after the show comprising: economists; trade unionists; and politicians, among others. James Farrar, a co-claimant in the defining Uber BV vs Aslam case, laughs that the architects of the gig-economy ought to be dramatists as they construct harmful and ludicrous ideas such as ‘working in your free time’ and call legitimate and time-consuming work ‘gigs’. This comment reminds me of the power of this production, and agitprop theatre in general, as it presents society’s own absurd constructions and injustices to audiences in order to agitate them into action against these issues in the real world.
Waiting for Lefty is playing online until 23rd May 2021. For more information and tickets, see Two Lines Productions’s website.