Fair Play

Fair Play

Fair Play Production Photo (Credit: Ali Wright)

The two teenage friends in Fair Play exchange dialogue with a fast pace which is characteristic of their shared passion – athletics, specifically the 800m race. These girls, Ann and Sophie, only ever meet during their training sessions at an athletics club, the running track of which forms the set. This track not only covers the ground of the stage but runs all the way up the walls. If Naomi Dawson’s design makes us, the audience, feel immersed in the world of training and athletics, we can only imagine how claustrophobic it must feel for these girls who face the never-ending pressures of performing well, beating their personal beats, and beating each other, as well as the pressures of school work, relationships, and puberty.  

At the beginning of the play, when Sophie, a White Brit played by Charlotte Beaumont (who brilliantly embodies the mannerisms of a girl who carries the weight of her adult-sized worries and ambitions on her teenage shoulders) asks Ann, a Nigerian-American played by NicK King, where she’s ‘really’ from, it’s clear that this play will also be about race. This question is a clever red-herring from writer Ella Road, because the real ‘race’ issue isn’t about migration and interpersonal microaggressions. It’s a play about racism in the sports industry and science. Road clearly draws from the real life experiences of South African 800m runner, Caster Semenya, for Ann’s story throughout her play. 

Semenya, in 2018, was told by the International Association of Athletics Federations that she could not participate in any athletics events because she had higher than average levels of testosterone which gave her an ‘unfair’ advantage over women with ‘normal’ testosterone levels (read: white women). In order to be able to compete, she would have to reduce her testosterone levels. The IAAF maintained that they wanted to ‘preserve fair and meaningful competition in the female classification’. In this play, in which Ann is similarly banned from running due to a disorder of sexual development, Road exposes the implicit racism and misogynoir of this pursuit for ‘fair play’, and has, in no uncertain terms, adapted Semenya’s trial and tribulation for the stage.  

Road draws heavily on Semenya’s arguments that she had used to challenge the IAAF’s ruling as inspiration for Ann’s dialogue. For example, Semenya (and Ann) lists other athletes, like Michael Phelps and LeBron James, who are also genetically different but haven’t been banned from participating in their respective sports. 

However, 30-year-old Semenya was speaking to an interviewer whereas 17-year-old Ann was speaking spontaneously to her friend. Because Road copies Semenya’s words verbatim, Ann’s lines come across as incongruous compared to the rest of her realistic teenage dialogue and vocabulary. Road, in devoting the crux of the second half of the play to delivering Semenya’s debate points against the IAAF, neglects to show us how Ann is feeling. We never get to witness Ann’s mental torment beyond her shout-crying Semenya’s words. 

Another example is when, three years after the IAAF’s ruling, Semenya told the Guardian, ‘I trained like a slave to be the greatest’ and that taking the drugs to lower her testerone levels would be like ‘taking the soul out of my body […] they want me to take my own system down.’ Ann, in the play, says, ‘the empire may have died but they’re still colonising our bodies’. This line does border on didacticism but is memorable because Road has honed in on Semenya’s off-hand analogy here about slavery, and connected it to a wider discourse around imperialism and white supremacy. Throughout the play, Road probes the objectification and devaluation of Black humanity in a more subtle way – through Sophie’s relationship to Ann. When Ann delivers this line, we see Sophie’s physical and facial response. Beaumont deftly conveys the shock of seeing her friend break down, the discomfort of not really understanding the problem with the ruling, and the relief of finding out that the reason why she can’t beat her friend has nothing to do with her ability. Sophie’s multifaceted response, we can imagine, is the response of most people (athletes and non-athletes alike) to Semenya’s tribulation and we get to see it on stage in real time with all of its emotional complexity. 

Sophie’s love-hate relationship with Ann acts as a microcosm for governing bodies in the sports industry. Like sponsors and those financially invested in athletics, Sophie loves how Ann motivates her, and provides her with entertainment during the arduous training sessions. Yet Sophie hates how she can’t easily exert control over Ann – Ann has her own life and boyfriend, and Sophie (who is, it is suggested, a lesbian) is annoyed that she can’t ‘have’ Ann. Frustrated with Ann’s effortless first-places and feeling like a failure, Sophie copies Ann – she copies her eating and sleep patterns, and treats her as a manual. Sophie sees Ann as a slacker, who eats Burger King and neglects her long runs (although we do see her during scene intervals train as hard as Sophie, as hard as Semenya would have been). Sophie sees Ann as a specimen of interest which she can’t access and figure out. If, then, each scene is like a bleep test and each conversation Ann and Sophie has flirts between competition and bonding, then this is symbolic of Sophie’s innate competitiveness. Sophie, however, never thinks to just speak to Ann about her anxieties and worries. Sophie, subconsciously, is like the IAAF in that she also turns her friend into a ‘thing’. It’s hard, however, to feel as angry with Sophie as it is to feel anger against the athletics governing bodies, who also want to exert control over Ann. This is because Road, quite rightly, gives Sophie’s her own bodily ‘defects’ and disorders, such as osteoporosis and disordered eating, which elicit sympathy. 

However, while Sophie also has these disorders, her body is never objectified – and that is the crucial difference between the way Black women and white women are treated, not just in sport, but throughout life in general. Road shows us how Black women are constantly objectified, turned into ‘bodies’, which white people try to control and diminish.

One reply on “Fair Play”

[…] My thoughts here. Sadly, my blog post didn’t mention Monique’s Tonko’s direction here. That, with Ella Road’s ability to manipulate a globally covered sports scandal into an individual experience that resonates for everyone in the audience, and Naomi Dawson’s immersive set design made this one of the standout plays I saw this year. I came away from it challenging my own biases around competitive sport, although I didn’t realise I had any.  […]


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