Parliament Square by James Fritz, directed by Jude Christian; Royal Exchange Theatre, 20 October 2017.

One morning, Kat (Esther Smith) kisses her husband and daughter goodbye and leaves the house. But instead of going to work, she gets on a train to London. She is led by an inner voice; a voice that encourages her to stick to her plan: to set herself on fire in London’s Parliament Square in protest over all the wrongs in the world.

The play, written by James Fritz and directed by Jude Christian, depicts a young woman who is unsettled and scared by all the evil in the world. She wants to protest, draw attention to her cause and ultimately make the world a better place. Therefore, she decides to set herself on fire in a public place of political significance: London’s Parliament Square. She hopes that this form of protest will go viral, make her a hero, and make people reconsider the way the world is evolving. Parliament Square raises important questions about the impact an individual can make. What can one person do to change the world?

The plot can roughly be divided into three parts: Kat’s journey to London and attempted suicide, her time in hospital, and her life after she leaves hospital. The first part of the play is without a doubt the strongest one. You see Kat struggle with an inner voice – played superbly by Lois Chimimba. The voice is guiding Kat on her mission, eliminating her doubts, and constantly reassuring her. It’s at the same time a voice of temptation and a voice of reason, counteracting Kat’s emotional nature. It’s a voice which comes across prudent and driven, and which strengthens Kat in her conviction that she can be a hero and change the world. Kat’s struggle with her inner voice is thrilling and thought-provoking. The dialogues are clever, unsettling and moving; the acting is fantastic and the staging minimalistic, which supports the intimate feel the stage at the Royal Exchange Theatre creates.

In the second part of the play, Kat finds herself in hospital, severely wounded and bed-ridden. She is still haunted by weltschmerz, her sense of justice and an urge to change the world. You want to like her, her ideologies and ambitions, her good intentions and caring nature. But you also can’t help finding her slightly complacent. Yes, she does want to make the world a better place, but she also wants to be a hero. She is upset when she learns that the media didn’t report on her attempted suicide and that it hasn’t had the desired effect.

She receives regular visits from her mum (Joanne Howarth), her husband Tommy (Damola Adelaja), a doctor (Jamie Zubairi) and physiotherapist (Kelly Hotten). And she meets a girl, a namesake: Catherine (Seraphina Beh). Catherine is a young, quirky London girl, and she is the girl who saved Kat’s life.

One of the big themes of the play is disappointment. Kat is disappointed in the world, the way it has developed, and the way the future might look for her daughter. She’s disappointed when she realises that her life was saved. She’s disappointed when she realises her attempted suicide hasn’t had the impact she wanted it to have. And she’s disappointed in her mother and her husband who don’t seem to want to know or care about the reasons why she did what she did. Similarly, Catherine is disappointed to find that Kat isn’t grateful that she saved her life. Just like Kat, she is disappointed that her deed didn’t have the desired effect: she has not become a hero.

The third and final part of the play focusses on Kat’s life after hospital. She and her husband try to lead a normal life. They tell friends and family that Kat had an accident, and they try to sweep the incident and Kat’s motives under the carpet. The years go by, many a “happy birthday” is sung, and their daughter Jo (Lois Chimimba) grows up. Kat tries to move on but never entirely manages to. The world around her seems to become even more dangerous, and she still fears for her daughter’s future. Kat and Catherine meet a couple of times and realise they aren’t as different as they thought they were.

The final scene sees Kat and Catherine reunited again in Parliament Square – the place of Kat’s attempted suicide. Catherine feels bad for having saved Kat’s life, and she now wants to complete Kat’s work by doing what she had stopped Kat from doing: taking her own life. Equipped with a lighter, Catherine is about to set herself on fire in the same spot as Kat many years ago. But she wants reassurance and encouragement from Kat, who at first seems to have changed her mind about the cause. “Just say ‘yes’”, Catherine asks. After some hesitation, Kat firmly utters the final word of the play: “Yes!”.

The strongest aspects about the second and third part of the play are the acting, the staging and lighting effects. The minimalist staging and brilliant acting are convincing and captivating. Lighting designer Jack Knowles has done a fantastic job in using lighting effects to create an intimate, tense and somewhat unnerving atmosphere, while still being subtle and not going over the top.

Parliament Square is a play worth seeing. The plot becomes slightly less convincing after the first third of the play, and the ideologies and motives that are driving Kat are at times rather hard to grasp. However, the play raises important questions about the role of the individual in our society, and the brilliant cast (you really can’t fault any of the actors in any way!) and staging definitely make for a worthwhile theatre experience.

At The Royal Exchange Theatre until October 28.

Sascha Stollhans

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