If You Don’t Let Us Dream, We Won’t Let You Sleep, a new play written by Anders Lustgarten and directed by Simon Godwin, questions the British economic policy of austerity by taking it to an extreme–a world in which corporations have found a way to monetise social problems such as crime and addiction. Advertised as a ‘production without decor,’ this performance at Royal Court Theatre depends on its engaging characters and powerful rhetoric to move past being simply a political manifesto into a unique and ethically troubling piece of theatre.
The play follows an ensemble of characters, including the board of executives who found the ‘Unity’ initiative of selling bonds based on social problems, young adults laughing at the very possibility of being able to go to university while espousing virulent racism, and a group of revolutionaries recently branded by the government as terrorists who wish to put the very concept of austerity on trial. Susan Brown shines as an elderly widow named Joan fighting back against condescension from government workers and hospital officials alike even as her electricity is taken away and her injuries ignored. Lucian Msamati plays a Zimbabwean electrical engineer forced to work as a busboy at a pub, stoic and deceptively wise, while Daniel Kendrick portrays the idealistic young man who stabs him with a knife; meanwhile, we witness his optimism being slowly ripped away from him by more powerful forces than he can understand.
The lack of a set and frequent costume changes make the multiple roles played by each actor difficult to follow; the final confrontation between Msamati and Kendrick is confusing until we realise that they are in fact playing the same characters as they were in the earlier scene. Still, the web of connections both political and coincidental serves to illustrate how such disparate people are linked even in a political environment that encourages the antagonising of strangers. The scene between Brown and Msamati in her unheated flat is particularly powerful, while the temporary uniting of the constantly disagreeing revolutionaries over their condemnation of Starbucks is nothing short of hilarious. The witty dialogue often prompts chuckles from the audience, though usually from contemporary political references that one must be ‘in the know’ to understand.
The script unfortunately turns a bit too openly political, too overt with its agenda, in its final scenes, sacrificing its ethical ambiguity to campaign for drastic solutions to Britain’s national debt problem. It is a pity, as I believe the text would have been more powerful had it been left open-ended, but the cast manages to retain the raw humanness of the play even as it begins its political campaigning. Lustgarten has some work to do on his new play, certainly, but it still fulfills its purpose as a fascinating and engaging story that contemplates a rather horrific ‘what if.’