Grace Linden reviews a recent production of Max Wilkinson’s play Union, directed by Wiebke Green, at the Arcola Theatre in Hackney.

Dominique Tipper and Sorcha Kennedy in Max Wilkinson’s Union.

Is it useful to construct narratives from individual moral responsibility when discussing gentrification? We all need a home; we’re all (too) willing to take on the options offered by a system that exploits our needs for self-enclosure, privacy, rest, safety. Arrayed against us is a usually faceless complex of state and productive forces of intimidating scale and scope of action. This is the question and the conflict that Max Wilkinson’s play Union, which recently ran at the Arcola in Hackney, will not let lie.

The play follows a 34-year-old property developer, Saskia (played by Dominique Tipper), married with a young kid, living in Stratford. She begins the play jubilantly taunting the audience with the ‘polished oak’ quality of her body, in her lycra, her Apple Watch: that is her capacity for control, her embodied success as a capitalist subject. Her boasts are quickly shown up as projections, as she struggles to reconcile her memories and sense of self with the demand that she sign off on a redevelopment planned for the Old Oak and Park Royal. Running from West to East London, she encounters a cast of characters, all of whom bring to the surface either some aspect of her past, or the effects of her work as a developer, or both. All the evictions and social cleansing inherent in profit-driven redevelopments are personified in this diverse set of characters: they tell a series of stories that Wilkinson draws from engaging with community groups campaigning against gentrification. These stories are the ones that Saskia’s boss simply ignores in the name of profit and Saskia, the ‘outreach’ and smiling face of property companies, tries to suppress with a narrative of urban ‘improvement’.

The effect of this structure is curiously old-fashioned, and brings to mind J.B. Priestley’s An Inspector Calls, with its cipher characters, diagrammatic layout of a network of moral actors and ultimately redemptive ending. Like Priestley’s play, Union is compellingly plot driven, and compellingly open about the message it wishes to communicate: ‘We don’t live alone. We are members of one body. We are responsible for each other.’ Except that Union phrases it in terms of the Saskia’s need to ‘let it in, let it all in’, with the implication that, if only she had been able to do this before, she might not have ended up as ‘the literal devil’ (to quote one of the other characters). She is haunted by the ghost of her ex best friend, who she failed to protect. Her mother makes an appearance, and refuses to hold her. Her husband Leon is worried about her pill use, and the fact that they no longer ‘talk’. The play makes references both to Macbeth and King Lear, bad kings sent mad by bad deeds.

All of this psychological sketching is the play’s strength and its weakness. It is, first of all, difficult to think of how else one might write a play along these political lines: the play would need characters, but could any individual character, however subtly drawn, really stand for the depth and multiplicity of the experience of the working-class residents displaced by Saskia and her company? Nevertheless, Union’s characters are deftly drawn, with humour and sympathetic observation, and played with commitment by Sorcha Kennedy and Andre Bullock. Further, Union depicts a figure of contemporary capitalism that must be reckoned with: not ‘the landlord’ or ‘the employer’, but ‘the developer’. Saskia does not simply exploit, as the play makes clear, she mediates, convinces, sells, cleans up, makes cool, makes acceptable. The developer also wields a huge political and economic influence, ideologically and materially setting the limits within which most councils address housing needs.

The play’s decision to frame the process of development as a kind of psychological ‘draining the swamp’ is a fascinating one. Saskia struggles to do her job, in part at least, because she cannot let go of a particular place as a site of her happiest and also most painful memories. The play suggests again and again, through Saskia’s parallel narratives, that the crime of development is to clear away in one sweep what is difficult and dirty, and human and dignified. Perhaps for this reason, it becomes tricky, for me at least, to critique the play for the parts that come off overdone, clumsy or just plain odd (is ‘wet bag’ a seriously used insult?), underscored as they are by this Priestley-esque sincerity of motive. In a charming detail, Saskia’s husband and child are called ‘Leon’ and ‘Rosa’, but the references to Trotsky and Luxemburg struggle to land in a play with no unions, no call to arms, no sense of revolutionary action beyond a personal crisis and recovery.

Union is a moving mess that raises fraught questions of self-harm, bullying, climate crisis, motherhood and more, without clarifying them, and clarifies the question of an individual developer’s personal motivations to an extent that some might find excessive. (It is doubtful, perhaps, that many property developers feel all that much apart from a socially encouraged confidence in their project to ‘improve’ the city.) At the same time, its exploration of the brutal processes of teenage cool, of the death bringing chill of ‘regeneration’, made me shed some messy tears. It felt good to be able to cry for what is being lost without trace, even as we are told that nothing is being lost, that everything is being made better, made new.

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