If You Don’t Let Us Dream We Won’t Let You Sleep
The Royal Court Theatre, 15th Feb- 9th March, 7.30pm
If You Don’t Let Us Dream We Won’t Let You Sleep makes no apologies for being a a play with an agenda as the writer Anders Lustgarten proclaims that ‘now’s the time for the return of proper political theatre.’ The central premise is that austerity does not work because it isn’t supposed to work, and the politicians who advocate it are obsessed with money and driven by the greed of the banks. The play presents a dystopian world in which every public service has been handed over to the private sector to run for profit and is presented as a series of vignettes characterised by a contrast between the smug satisfaction of the corporate world and the desperation of ordinary people.
It was, then, not surprising, if disappointing, that the issues overshadowed the potential for a more subtle character-based moralising. Easily the most affecting character was Joan, a pensioner whose hopelessness about her government-enforced debt was presented skilfully by Susan Brown. On receiving the advice to pay she replies simply and bleakly: “with what?” It was the personal stories, like that of a Zimbabwean structural engineer who mopped the floor of an English pub, played with stoic dignity by Lucian Msamati, which really illustrated Lustgarten’s message.
Director Simon Godwin’s take on the script injected a wry humour, always bordering on satire, into the production. When the financiers, with Meera Syal standing out as a frustrating sweet-voiced bureaucrat, try to explain to a hopeful investor exactly what a bond is, dry chuckles from the audience signalled that most of them weren’t quite sure either. Contemporary references to Michael Gove and Boris Johnson (“If enough people repeat a lie enough times, it becomes true. Boris Johnson is a harmless clown”) strengthened the connection with the audience, and the moment when a revolutionary sent out for coffee returned with a tray of Starbucks cups to the disbelief of his comrades was frankly hilarious. Many of the actors played more than one character and the wings were in full view, which lent the production a looseness that ensured the rapid scene changes flowed rather than jerked.
Yet at times the fact that the play was set so firmly in the present created the problem of it trying to confront too many issues at once. It was enough that throughout the quickly shifting scenes it dealt with all the areas most affected by austerity and privatisation like the police force, social services and hospitals, without the addition of racism. The phrase ‘immigrants are coming over her taking our jobs’ is part of a well worn stereotype, but the implication that privatisation and austerity drives people not just to division and prejudice but to vicious, violent racism went a step too far for me.
Nevertheless, the final scene which brought together the diverse characters into one protest movement, created genuine food for thought as they tried to explain to an ex-Goldman Sachs employee the historical precedents for resisting austerity. I suspect I wasn’t the only member of the audience who went away and Googled them to make sure they were genuine. They were. The sceptical banker Thomas, played with the right mix of disbelief and curiosity by Ben Dilloway, even managed to address the issue I had with the play as he cried “but you have such an obvious agenda!” To Lustgarten, this clearly is the point, but for me it was using a hammer where a gentle tap would have done.