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theatre

Fair Play – Bush Theatre

Ella Road’s brilliant new play is an inspired drama of high achievement and youthful exhaustion, before it strikingly broadens its scope

NicK King and Charlotte Beaumont in Fair Play

Arriving to watch Ella Road’s Fair Play, you either know what the play is ‘about’, or you don’t. According to Kate Wyver in The Guardian, it is about ‘gender and race in sport’, while, in the Evening Standard, Farah Najib immediately identifies ‘What makes a woman?’ as the central question at the heart of Road’s drama. Yet while the play certainly does arrive at these concerns – and handles them with terrific intellect and heart – as a whole, Fair Play might not be the play you are expecting. Instead, its through line seems to be the theme of exhaustion: the tiring pressure to perform, career burnout, from the physical endurance of running itself, and (at the very end) the exhaustion of self-advocacy when the world turns against you.

The script is structured in short scenes, which Road describes as ‘reps’ – the kind of short, high-intensity training undertaken by athletes. The movement direction of Joseph Toonga and Orin ‘oriyo’ Norbert demands relentless activity, scenes interspersed with workout routines while Monique Touko directs the impeccable cast into constant motion. Naomi Dawson’s sparsely effective set is comprised off a running track floor – an arena they can never leave psychologically – and two climbing frames. Each scene is accompanied by stretching – warming down or warming up – or clambering around. You feel the sheer effort required on the part of the performers; it must be physically exhausting.

Yet constant motion and activity (felt more immediately in the theatre, where there is little chance for actors to catch their breath) is very deliberate part of Fair Play’s dramaturgy. What most people see of athletics is only duration of the race itself. (In the case of the 800m, that is about two minutes.) The years of training it took to get there are an offstage event. Similarly, when decisions are taken over what testosterone levels to allow in women’s sport, we only see the cold courtroom drama – or just the resulting headlines. Invisible are the years of hard graft preceding it that are invalidated. This is the asymmetry that Fair Play sets out to correct.

Charlotte Beaumont and NicK King in Fair Play

Road plays out the complex friendship of Ann and Sophie, played exquisitely by NicK King and Charlotte Beaumont, capturing both their determination and vulnerability simultaneously. The characters both train at a track for elite runners under a demanding coach called Paul. There is a low-level unease percolating through every interaction though – partly the dramatic inevitability of some sort of rupture, with the simmering competition potentially threatening to boil over, yet also in Road’s deliberate interplay of genres. We are never quite sure what play we are watching. At times, it is a coming-of-age drama – subverted by the fact that many of the life experiences they could be having have been replaced by training. At other points it plays as a tentative, potential romance. Reflecting on the play, I was reminded of Clare Barron’s Dance Nation – which considers somewhat similar thematic territory of female adolescence and competition, in that case within a dance troupe. Both plays contain ambiguously lecherous coaches, and Fair Play seemed poised to shift into a political drama about abuse of power at any moment. Instead, it only adds to the pervasive unease – part of the maze the young characters must navigate.

For most of its runtime, Fair Play largely follows the model of a conventional sports drama – which generally involves a slow build, leading to a significant setback, followed by eventual triumph. However, Ann’s performance does not waver on the track; all inner demons are successfully vanquished. Instead, her arc ends in tragic failure only due to the sudden interposition of something that barely seems on the cards.

Of course, if you know what the play is ‘about’ then you will likely be expecting it, but Ann’s disqualification on the grounds of high testosterone levels arrives suddenly and shockingly. The play’s dramaturgy makes us share the abruptness; it plays as sharp jolt, with little foreshadowing, causing narrative whiplash. Normally, a sudden introduction of a new theme or such a large change in direction so late in a play would draw criticism, yet here Road knows exactly how to wield deliberately dramatically unsatisfying developments to recruit our sympathies. Most of all, it simply feels unfair.

The play models this sudden disjuncture in the relationship of Ann and Sophie too. Ann’s anticipated success disappears as quickly as the central friendship which has held the play together – leaving us feeling bereft and somewhat adrift. The uncertainty of genre made me feel we were building to something significant – the tension between them a detailed mixture of personal rivalry, potentially sexual interest, romantic intentions, or even sabotage. The occasional collision in training makes us wonder about foul play, yet they also seem movingly reliant on each other for support. These undercurrents are expressed subtly, in the pauses for breath, making us lean in with curiosity. Yet the Ann’s disqualification is marked by absence, as Sophie chooses to focus on her race rather than support Ann. Sophie’s ultimate betrayal is reported later; interviewed after a race, Sophie says that ‘the organisers have to draw the line somewhere’.

Charlotte Beaumont in Fair Play

While the play has been lauded for sensitively examining a complex issue, Road’s ultimate position has been a little underexplored. Fair Play demonstrates how easy it can be to fall into ‘both sides’-ing an issue, taking a centre-ground position in the pursuit of reasonableness. Road argues that sticking to the safe middle will hurt those on the margins. The play eschews typical modes of debate, while also avoiding becoming a polemic, instead operating as a slow unpacking of ideas of fairness. Road has written what seems to be a taut and compelling love story – shockingly interrupted by an issue the characters had never even considered. Road implicitly rejects the framing of testosterone limits as a reasonable, pre-established guideline. Instead, the play makes the disqualification feel utterly arbitrary. No one warned Ann that there could even be any question over her womanhood, her hard work and effort suddenly and cruelly dismissed on grounds that feel highly dubious. Thus, Fair Play reveals itself to be a play about the damage caused by cold bureaucracies and unempathetic self-imagined pragmatists who take their assumed idea of reasonableness as gospel – and the exhaustion that it can cause those affected by these decisions.

Very often these superficially reasonable categorisations discriminate along lines of race. In attempting to define the limits of the normative woman, the guidelines disproportionately exclude Black women. Their hard work is ignored, their performance attributed solely to inherent, biological advantage, and they are told they can only compete if they undergo hormone therapy or even surgery. As Ann points out at the end, natural advantages exist in many forms – height, lactic acid thresholds, size of feet. Yet hormones are the frontier currently being policed, in theory to protect women and women’s athletics. Fair Play strongly argues that it is only white women who are benefitting though. When Sophie is faster than Ann (at the start of the play), it is seen as a sign of her hard work and talent, but when the roles reverse, Sophie is quick to devalue Ann’s work – claiming an unfair genetic advantage. Road rails against this hypocrisy, identifying the prejudices that underpin the current trends for seemingly scientific inclusion criteria.

Towards the end, you can feel the play straining against its two-person dramaturgy. It does not want Ann to have to be a completely erudite self-explainer, a Black woman patiently detailing infringements on her own freedom for the benefit of white people with bodies considered normative. Yet Road still needs to get information into the play; at the point of Ann’s disqualification, neither character seems aware of DSD (differences in sex development). To accommodate this learning curve (for the characters and audience), Road skips forward. Ann informs Sophie of some of the issues, though there is a clear implication that she should not have to spend her life engaged in exhausting self-advocacy. Yet we do lose out a little from the time jump, Ann’s experience related in retrospect rather than depicted directly.

Charlotte Beaumont and NicK King in Fair Play

A striking deviation from the printed text (and a welcome one) is the rewritten final scene, which combines the final reps together and omits some of the additional details. In the script, the final rep sees Sophie and Ann bump into each other at train station. We learn that Sophie now dates women and has become supportive of Ann at a distance (‘reading all your stuff’). They won’t be close friends anymore, but any lasting resentments seem to be resolved. Yet this feels a little too neat – too easy. The play as performed lacks such a resolution; a change of mind and an apology, though sincere, is not in itself advocacy. Sophie has still done net harm, so it is up to her to do the necessary work to make things right again. It’s a good decision, eschewing resolution for an unhealed, ongoing tension. We leave the theatre under no illusions that the problems depicted are close to being solved.

Fair Play follows Ella Road’s also-excellent debut The Phlebotomist, which was first staged at Hampstead Theatre in 2018. Both plays evince a prevailing concern from Road over the role of science in society – particularly probing the dangers of determinism, genetic certainty, and (pseudo)science’s uneasy relationship to eugenics and racism. The Phlebotomist depicted a world in which routine blood tests are analysed to give everyone a rating between 0 and 10, based on their propensity towards developing different diseases. It results in a stratified society, ratings affecting your prospects in employment, romance and social participation – the science wielded as a cover for the government to implement increasingly authoritarian policy. Fair Play is more character-focused, with less world-building, yet it shares the concern that our potentially lifesaving understanding of ourselves could be misused. Claims that science produces unshakeable facts about categorising people are alarming, potentially repressive and, Road argues, should be resisted.

Fair Play

Written by Ella Road, Directed by Monique Touko, Design by Naomi Dawson, Lighting Design by Matt Haskins, Sound Design and Composition by Giles Thomas, Movement Direction by Joseph Toonga, Assistant Movement Director Orin ‘oriyo’ Norbert, Starring Charlotte Beaumont, NicK King
Reviewed 7th January 2022

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