As 31st January looms and the Brexit debate continues to rage on, Harry Darell’s timely new play considers the ways in which language can be used for both better and worse, and asks what happens when those who wield their pen so passionately are forced to face the real-world consequences of their own arguments.
The play is set in the mid 2000s, as journalist Eleanor Hickock (Ashleigh Cole) is approached by Maria (Paula Cassina), the grieving mother of a young soldier killed in Iraq. Having discovered that Eleanor’s writings in favour of the invasion strongly influenced her son’s decision to enlist, Maria reaches out to her for reconciliation – but not everyone in her family is so forgiving.
The idea behind the play (which was inspired by a real incident involving the late writer Christopher Hitchens) is an interesting one, and certainly relevant as a divided nation gears up to face the as yet largely unknown consequences of the Brexit vote. However, what could have been a powerful and thought-provoking drama gets bogged down in trying to tackle too many issues, with a daunting number of characters and – ironically, given the subject matter – just a bit too much talking.
This is particularly true in Act 1, where Eleanor’s friends spend a considerable amount of time enthusiastically debating the merits – or otherwise – of Winston Churchill, Ken Livingstone and Vladimir Putin. They’re clearly enjoying themselves, and it’s not uninteresting to listen to, but this entire section serves little purpose in terms of plot development, other than letting us know they all enjoy arguing for the sake of it, and setting up Eleanor to discuss her own favourite topic: Iraq. It’s only in Act 2 that there’s any real action, and even this comes only after another spirited debate about the pros and cons of the 2003 conflict. (It’s also heavily foreshadowed by a strange and rather clumsily inserted anecdote early in Act 1.)
All that said, it’s not a bad play; it just needs to focus in more on Eleanor’s journey and spend less time on side plots and themes. Ashleigh Cole gives a strong central performance as Eleanor, a woman who’s become so addicted to debate that she no longer sees the human beings behind the arguments. Even when she learns what happened to Mark, even while sitting in his family home looking at photos of his early years, she shows little sign of remorse or even empathy – and when challenged by his angry, grieving brother Billy, she instinctively goes on the attack instead of trying to engage with him on a personal or emotional level. As such, when her moment of “redemption” finally arrives, it rings decidedly hollow, and not only because it comes at such a terrible cost.
There are strong performances also from Lucia France, Arthur Velarde and Henry Eaton-Mercer as Eleanor’s pretentious friends and fellow debaters, and Paula Cassina as Mark’s bereaved mother Maria. Meanwhile the one voice that really matters – Mark’s – belongs to Georgie Farmer, who delivers three short monologues with charisma and clarity. Here lies the other side of the argument: far from coming across as a brainwashed young boy, taken in by some well-crafted articles written by a stranger, he’s clearly intelligent and capable of independent thought. Is it therefore reasonable for his family, or indeed the audience, to hold Eleanor responsible for his death?
As one might expect from the title, For the Sake of Argument poses some great questions about the limits of free speech and responsible use of the media. These are issues that are perhaps even more relevant in the age of social media, where everyone can have a platform to share their views, with little chance of ever being held accountable. The play does struggle to take flight under the weight of too many plot threads, characters and themes, but with a bit of pruning there’s definite potential here to spark a lively post-show debate or two.