“Word-Play” at Royal Court Theatre

Neil Dowden in west London
2 August 2023

Postponed from last September, Rabiah Hussain’s intriguing new work Word-Play is, as the author says in her introduction to the play text, about the “power of language”. Rather than a through narrative, it consists of a series of short scenes featuring a range of unnamed characters with overlapping themes that sometimes cross-reference each other with certain words and phrases echoing between them. The overarching subject revolves around the tensions within a multicultural society where the use – and abuse – of particular words can create divisions and stigmatize minority communities.


Simon Manyonda, Kosar Ali and Sirine Saba.
Photo credit: Johan Persson.


The main premise – from which some other scenes reverberate – is that the prime minister has gone off-message on live TV ad-libbing offensively, with his words going viral and creating a “shitstorm” that the 10 Downing Street press office has to deal with. We never learn exactly what he said, but the implication is that it concerns race, religion, or immigration. Like a less foul-mouthed version of The Thick of It, spin doctors discuss how to limit the damage, using diversionary tactics or fudging an apology – what are synonyms for “sorry”? – but the PM does not want to take back what he said. It transpires later that it is a dog whistle to people whose support is needed by a premier with “messy hair” and “on his third marriage” who is given to “quoting out-of-context Shakespeare and Churchill to everyone” – sounds familiar?

An audio recording prologue sets out the general idea of how words can be manipulated for political reasons. Two men discuss how naming a “moment” in history forms “ripples that become waves” in public consciousness, alluding to Conservative right-wing politician Enoch Powell’s infamous 1968 “Rivers of Blood” speech fomenting interracial conflict. It is reprised near the end of the play, this time containing the Brexit maxim “Take Back Control”.


Design by Rosanna Vize.
Photo credit: Johan Persson.


A recurring sketch features a group of people WhatsApping about the political controversy showing how a newsflash spreads like wildfire on social media. On a radio current affairs programme discussing the PM’s comments a guest’s critical opinions are censored by an “Impartiality Beeper”. In a meta-theatrical skit (with actors sitting in the seats of audience members who are politely shown alternative seats), three theatre-goers smugly congratulate themselves on their liberal view of the controversy but are actually more interested in their ice creams. And at a dinner party the comments are touched on before a mixed-race couple have a row over how much salt to put into a Bengali dish in a case of cultural appropriation.

Some of the scenes are more tangential but riff off the original theme of how the subtext of language can fuel prejudice. What does a white woman dating a man from a Muslim background mean by calling him “different”? The absurdity of the London Transport Police slogan “See It. Say It. Sorted.” is speared when a new employee is told to look out for anything not “normal”. And a man worries that he is a “bad father” because he has not warned his son that “Sticks and stones may break your bones but words will shatter you”.

The climactic, Kafkaesque scene “Stones” – an extended monologue – has the biggest emotional impact. A mother can’t see her young daughter at school until being questioned by police after being reported to the counter-terrorism programme “Prevent”. The reason? Her daughter has brought back a couple of stones inscribed with her name and those of her grandparents on the subcontinent written in their mother tongue. A barrage of random obscure British citizenship test questions follow.

Word-Play raises all sorts of interesting questions about the relationship between language and politics, Islamophobia, unconscious bias, and cultural identity. But it does feel sometimes like a collection of fragmented sketches – ranging between dramatic, satirical, farcical, and experimental – rather than a fully cohesive play. Although each scene is titled, they have no context or back story, so that they tend to veer towards the abstract – “Word Association” is literally a list of interconnected one-word lines – though Hussain’s own use of language is admirably precise and sometimes poetic.

Hussain’s multilingual south Asian background has evidently given her certain insights, as has her spell as a government communications officer. And her own temporary experience of aphasia after being treated for a brain tumour during the writing of the play must have sharpened her awareness of the importance of what words signify.

Nimmo Ismail’s slick, traverse-style production, with Rosanna Vize’s design including a sealed-off glass-walled office at one end and a rainbow inclusivity mural at the other, with the audience sitting on corporate-style plastic chairs, is very watchable. The multi-roling cast of Issam Al Ghussain, Kosar Ali, Simon Manyonda, Sirine Saba, and Yusra Warsama – who all make the most of their time in the limelight with longer speeches – do sterling work in creating diverse scenarios and making the play’s words count.