Plays, of course, are meant to be seen and not read, but it’s not always possible to see every play. They are not complete on the page, certainly in contemporary theatre where plays can be more collaboratively made than ever before. However, it encourages us (and hopefully others) to read more widely. For the third year, here is our #ReadaPlayaWeek initiative. And, as achieved in 2015, we shall try to choose 26 male playwrights and 26 female playwrights for our play choices.
Week 7: David Lan’s Painting a Wall (1974)
Reading reviews for the Almeida’s production of Uncle Vanya this week, one blog wrote of the scenes of accountancy (that distract characters from their heartbreak) that work will not and does not set characters free. It’s an interesting thought that reminded me of Painting a Wall, a one act written by Artistic Director of the Young Vic, David Lan, first staged at the Almost Free Theatre in London. Four South Africans have to paint a wall white: Peter cleans the brushes, Henry is in mourning for his daughter, Samson takes pride in his work, and Willy protests that he’s had enough of painting the wall. What’s more, the paint they’ve been given is green! And yet they go on, painting the wall.
This is a play about racial inequalities, the oppressive and liberating power of language, and the need to feel free. There are several memorable moments, such as Willy suggesting that words are a cage for him because the few words that he does know revolve around ‘paint, brushes, bricks, shit and fucking’. There is also his anecdote of making the bus conductor check the skin colour under the clothes of the white women on the bus in case they don’t really deserve a seat. But, despite it being Willy who keeps saying that he will get out of the job, it is the mostly silent Peter who escapes from work.
Before the bright sun fades on the completed wall, Samson tells a story about his sister to Willy. Originally a maid to a nice family, she married well and now lives in another country and has servants of her own. The story and Samson’s carefree response closes the play asking us to reflect on power change and status. I was reading something by Simon Stephens recently in which he said that Lan’s advice on being a playwright was to always write about people. What Lan achieves in such a short play with the four people centre stage in Painting a Wall is to present characters who are trapped in a job painting all day, told that the wall must be white. Within this, we care about where these characters’ lives are going (if anywhere), can they change it and do they even want to?