The State is a crucial and beautifully subtle antagonist in Edward Lee’s Wall. It has no lines, it is never directly addressed and doesn’t even feature in the script. Despite this, it hangs low and heavy over the play, unveiled last week as part of Druid Theatre Company’s Summer Debut festival.
The annual festival is made up of rehearsed readings of new plays submitted by fledgling writers – this year, as with most other theatre events, it is being conducted entirely online.
When the Zoom call starts and the rehearsed reading begins, it doesn’t take long for virtual audience members to forget that they are sitting alone, and simply watching three people read a script. There is a power in the writing and acting which takes you into the dystopian world that Lee has created.
Wall is a play about dystopia, power and the way in which the state controls our lives. It is difficult to believe – though true – that it was written before the pandemic. The world has been consumed by a deadly respiratory virus called “Red”. Two men with numbers as names spend a day looking out of small windows, protecting their unnamed country from an enemy that they have never seen.
The government’s response to this pandemic is to enforce strict control of citizens’ lives and to stratify society based on occupation. From early on, it is clear that the state is corrupt and authoritarian.
As well as state control, money haunts the lives of the characters throughout the play. Four, the new recruit played by Kwaku Fortune, spends the play dreaming of a better life. He is a “watcher” who is responsible for looking out for the enemy (foreign people who want to infiltrate the wall) but wants to be a “searcher” – someone who hunts those people down.
Four’s desire to climb the ladder and get a higher paying job is all too recognisable – Fortune’s character talks about providing a life for his children and how money can solve his problems.
As the reading progresses, Four builds a strong relationship with his older colleague One, played by John Olohan. The pair’s performance is so human that it breaks through the computer screen. While they don’t simulate the power of being in a theatre, a new kind of intimacy is built between the performers. When they look to the top corners of their screen, it almost feels as if they are making eye contact with you.
But Lee throws a wrench in the works by introducing a third character, N, played by Derbhle Crotty. N’s character personifies state bureaucracy and manipulation. When she tells Four to pull himself up by his bootstraps, she is speaking as a manager. When she refuses One leave from his position, she is the corporate bureaucracy. Finally, when she says there is, “no time or space for compassion” here, she is speaking as the state.
The play’s pandemic-setting is eerily familiar. People must quarantine after loved ones die from the “Red”, the government offers coffee to stay awake but fails to provide chairs for workers, and immigration control is the state’s top priority.
This play takes recognisable political situations and dramatises them just enough to show how quickly the exceptional can become normal when a powerful, authoritarian government is in control. Importantly, Wall never leans too far in this direction as to become unbelievable. In fact, its power lies in how fathomable the story is.
Wall is a scathing – yet timely – indictment of state control and response to crisis, while also a thoroughly enjoyable human story about grief, love, and ultimately, compassion.
The Druid Debut Festival runs online until July 23rd. Tickets for each production are €5 and can be booked online through the Druid website.