“Listen, strange women lyin’ in ponds distributin’ swords is no basis for a system of government. Supreme executive power derives from a mandate from the masses, not from some farcical aquatic ceremony.” – Monty Python and the Holy Grail
Ask the average person what ‘nationalism’ means, there’s bound to be a certain amount of uncertainty and reticence. However, if you asked the same group of people why Brexit is an important issue, everybody has an opinion – even if they can’t fully articulate their thoughts and feelings… Written by Rib Davis and directed by Brian Woolland, The Sword of Alex examines through a fictional scenario the inherent contradictions in ‘independence’ and ‘keeping the status quo’. Within the world of the breakaway republic of Nikali, we see parallels between the Brexit referendum, as well as the circumstances of many other countries where some of their cities and regions want to be self-governing.
As the ceasefire between ‘the State’ and ‘Nikali’ draws to an end, negotiation talks are held between Antonio (Patrick Regis) the president and Karl (DK Ugonna), head and architect of the ‘Nikali’ movement. On first impressions, Antonio is the ‘alpha’ of the two, confident and unapologetic of his views. While Karl tries to use composed, intellectial arguments for the recognition of Nikali as an independent state, Antonio’s persuasiveness stems from his emotional convictions, which are unwavering. That’s not to say he is any less an intellectual than Karl or less able to understand the nuances of what’s being said to him. Rather, he’s able to deconstruct the ‘mechanics’ of politcs, and knows what words and actions have real clout. But behind the veil of measured rhetoric, the play hints that Karl knows that behind his ‘higher aspirations’, it’s easier to sell to the masses ‘politics’ based on identity than ideas…
The women in in their respective lives also throw light on the contradictory aspects of the men. Davis also uses these relationships as meta-reference points, comparing the ideas of ‘ownership’, freedom and independence when it’s one-on-one with the country at large. Kate Terence who plays Calantha – Antonio’s former lover – represents the need of the State to ‘have its cake and eat it’. She leads a fulfiling, independent life as a photographer and in the past has enjoyed time with Antonio. But as he’s married and won’t make their relationship public – for fear of the political and marital implications – Calantha decides to call it a day. However, she is carrying his child. But seeing as he doesn’t… can’t acknowledge her, the child is her responsibility and her’s alone. Isn’t it..?
Gina (Georgia Winters) who is the wife of Karl has a very different relationship. Whatever problems Calantha and Antonio have, in private they are equals and there is a mutual respect between them – able to talk frankly with each other. The same can’t be said for Gina and Karl. While in his political life Karl is conciliatory and willing to listen, with Gina he often talks over when she tries to speak and has a very dim view of her family. But sensing that the visit to her mother portends to something more serious, he realises at an instinctive level that the issues he faces at ‘work’ are taking place in his own home…
There is one thing that has to be mentioned, which has a profound impact on The Sword of Alex. Domestic violence does take place and although it happens once briefly (perhaps the reason why a trigger warning wasn’t mentioned in the publicity), it is very shocking and may colour people’s enjoyment of the rest of the play. The ‘incident’ certainly explains the actions of certain characters and such intense feelings at junctures. But because it’s so unexpected when it takes place, ‘post-incident’ it adds an extra level of tension to the proceedings and for some, they will continue to reel from its brutal nature.
Regis is well-cast as the impassioned Antonio, who you believe wthout question why he was elected leader. Even though at the end of the day he’s a politician who is used to not speaking the whole truth 100% of the time, he doesn’t fool himself about his political convictions. On the domestic front however…
While perhaps sharing less time on stage, Terence as Calantha is equally Antonio’s match in being multi-faceted and impassioned. And while it isn’t perhaps at first obvious, it is through her that the subject of a politician’s private versus public morality is broached – that and the questionable validity of the argument that there is an inextricable bond with one’s ‘former relationships’.
If Calantha and Antonio’s relationship can be compared to major key chord progressions in music, the subtler ‘arrangements’ of Gina and Karl come to the fore in the latter half, and in many ways eclipse what else has transpired. If a person is ‘kept’ in their marriage against their will, how can you champion the formation of a breakaway state?
There’s a plethora of influences in Davis’ writing, from Nineteen Eighty-Four to The Man In The High Castle. However, what gives The Sword of Alex its resonance isn’t its literary heritage, but its relatability to the here and now. Modern comparisons are made, such as the ‘tribalism’ of football. What’s more important – club or country? And would Arsène Wenger have won more trophies if he had the resources of Man City or Chelsea?
Once you spot the subtext in Davis’ writing, you’ll realise EVERYTHING is about independence in the political and personal arenas, and how they blur into one. Consequently, you may find yourself flipping back and forth between the validity of the arguments, which is the whole point of The Sword of Alex.
The play’s coda, which is very unstated, shows the ramifications of having an ‘open relationship’ where one person takes their ‘favours’ elsewhere, while the other who wanted to keep them at all costs, is powerless to act. Does this apply to the political arena too?
© Michael Davis 2018
The Sword of Alex runs at White Bear Theatre until 6th October.