16 Nov 21 – 1 Jan 22
Upper Ground, London SE1 9PX
On paper, Manor, written and directed by sisters Moira and Fiona Buffini respectively, is a provocative and comedic exposé of the state of the nation. In practice, the play produces very few laughs and even fewer lucid analyses of the far-right in modern British society. Manor feels like the theatrical equivalent of a sparkler that has been lit in a torrential rain and hisses and squibs, much to the chagrin of the audience.
Depictions of torrential rain is one of the few things Manor gets right. Lez Brotherston’s set and Jon Nicholls sound design come together to perfectly emulate the apocalyptic storm that punctuates the play. Lady Diana, the owner of the manor, allows a ragtag group of refugees to shelter with her family during this storm. Among these refugees is a trio (Ruth, Anton, and ringmaster Teddy) from a far-right organisation, Albion, which is in the leagues of Neo-Nazi groups and the KKK. Teddy falls in love with Diana’s manor because, to him, it epitomises England at its most pure (read: white). Because of her title, he falls in love with Diana too. This Lady Diana gag isn’t as sharp as the play thinks – yes, she was part of the most English institution ever, but she was an outsider (which is the reason why so many people of colour relate to Diana).
All three Albion members explain their organisation’s genocidal impulses and how England has been soiled by inferior races, pushing the superior ones to the margins. The issue is they don’t really talk about race in any meaningful way. Instead, when Teddy hits Ripley, a Black Nurse, he shouts, ‘you people are fucking Pharisees’, this feels like a damp and vague attempt at racial tension. At one point, we get the pleasure of watching Teddy radicalise Perry, a caravan-dweller who’s recently been made redundant from Sainsburys and who is the butt of many unfunny fatphobic jokes. When incited to say what he feels about his Sainsbury’s manager, he says the P word. This use of this slur can’t even be called inflammatory because the entire scene has no emotional charge or lead-up. Rather, it’s an awkward stab at depicting how racial politics lies at the heart of the far-right’s recruitment and ethos. Maybe Moira, of Irish descent, has no intimate understanding of how radicalised young people, amongst their peers, feel confident enough to commit hate crimes and racist attacks against global majorities.
Moira has the opportunity to parody far-right ideology throughout the three different characters. Each character has a different identity marker which allows for individualised ‘recruitment’ speeches. Ruth focuses on the white woman’s role in Albion while Anton speaks for people with lived experience of the prison system and Perry for disabled people.
Anton’s rhetoric is just as endearing as that which is espoused by spokespeople for far-right organisations at rallies, in academia, on social media. However, unlike real-life ideology, in Manor, it is very incoherent and there is little clarity. While this could be a satirical depiction of the far-right, we spend so much time trying to make sense of the words and his argument that the whole attempt at lampooning feels ill-considered and without purpose.
The implicit explorations of how the far-right operate are far more interesting. We see Teddy recruit people considered ‘weak’ by society – those that are blind, overweight, criminals. However, although he was able to recruit Anton, who, like his US counterpart, is played by a mixed race actor, the organisation is unable to manipulate Dora, the daughter of Nurse Ripley. On the surface, Albion may be inciting a race war but it is clear that this is a war between those with a solid sense of self and those without. For example, Dora is able to see that Anton is just a token.
Moira affords long speeches and stagetime to the far-right but isn’t able to make us feel anything for those on the right side’. During the interval, I heard one audience member say that ‘the nurse is a neutral character’. This, in a play where this character is the moral centre and hero of the story, is an underwhelming takeaway. Therein lies the problem. These characters act as extras meant only to react to the far-right. Fiona’s direction only exacerbates the superficial nature of these ‘good’ characters.
She has not, it seems, encouraged the actors to non-verbally react to the dangers of terrorism they see in front of them, except for when they have a quirky one-liner to say (Isadora glibly retorts that the world is being destroyed by ‘hormonal white men’). For example, as Teddy croons about Diana’s superiority to other women, Ripley simply walks past with no reaction. After the Reverend reveals that his ‘father saw first hand the horror of white supremacy’, the other characters don’t react. They just walk away and the play steamrolls onto a different conversation.
We get no resolution whatsoever. Instead, these quasi-Antifa characters feel like Chekhov’s unused gun.