Review: Dirty Hands: A Brexistential Crisis

Image credit: Johannes Hjorth

Political intrigue, murder, existentialism and hilarious comedy all feature in this engaging adaption of Sartre’s Les Mains Sales set in post-Brexit Britain. With the conclusion established in the opening scene, the rest of the play is a detailed flashback which confronts a bewildering number of themes, asking not the who but the why and intertwining Sartre’s overarching focus on the meaning and value of existence with sardonic and insightful comment on present day politics.

The set made this political element immediately clear, with a large Labour party poster placed pointedly in the centre of the back wall of the stage, a biography of Tony Blair sitting on the desk commenting perhaps on the source of the deep divisions within the party portrayed in this play. Similarly, newspaper cuttings plastered on the door reporting the current affairs to which the actors made frequent reference to (Trump and Brexit) helped set the scene for a play which places strong emphasis on the questions of national identity provoked by the June referendum.

The standout element, perhaps surprisingly in an otherwise serious play, is the comedic duo played by Alice Jay and Carine Valarché, who appear throughout in various guises while adopting different accents. Their first incarnation as bodyguards Slick and George pokes fun at intolerance and homophobia, their thick cockney accents and leather jackets replaced with suits in their next role as UKIP’s Paul Nuttall and Rufus, a Conservative. An excellent understanding and sense of comedic timing between the two actors produced several hilarious moments, especially when Nuttall translates Rufus’s parodically elevated language into equally parodied colloquialisms. The acting elsewhere must also be commended; Hugo (Harry Redding) is convincingly passionate, his idealism contrasting well with his disillusionment by the end, while Turnbull, a Labour party big-dog, displays remarkable self-possession which only serves to intensify his brief outbursts of anger. The run time of around one hour and forty five minutes zipped by, helped along by the dazzling scene changes at first to James Brown’s 'Sex Machine': then, as the tone became more subdued, to less raucous and more reflective music.

The extent to which this adaption may seem far-fetched depends on your view of Brexit, its impact, and its significance. A catastrophe for many, a triumph for some, for others even a non-event, the lethal political games of Sartre’s play seem a little contrived here, with the Communist party of the original replaced by the present day labour party, and the original plot which pivots around the cataclysmic Second World War here replaced by Brexit. Nevertheless, in some ways this adaption works remarkably well, for example the imagined possibility of a coalition between Labour, UKIP and the Conservatives mirroring the alliance between the Fascist government and the liberal and Nationalist led resistance with the Communists in Sartre’s original.

With its thought-provoking efforts to engage with, ridicule and discuss a baffling and scary new reality after Brexit and Trump, whilst at the same time asking the big questions just as persuasively as Sartre does, this play is certainly well worth a watch.  


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