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Caryl Churchill’s Pigs and Dogs review at Royal Court, London – ‘an essay for voices’

Fisayo Akinade, Alex Hassell and Sharon D Clarke in Pigs and Dogs at the Jerwood Theatre Downstairs. Photo: Tristram Kenton Fisayo Akinade, Alex Hassell and Sharon D Clarke in Pigs and Dogs at the Jerwood Theatre Downstairs. Photo: Tristram Kenton

You can say a lot in 15 minutes. Caryl Churchill’s newest play, like her previous short pieces Ding Dong the Wicked and Seven Jewish Children, lasts less than quarter of an hour, but it uses its brevity as a tool. It’s explicit in its politics and each word has a job to do. There’s nothing surplus here, no fat, no garnish.

Drawing on the book Boy-Wives and Female-Husbands by Stephen O Murray and Will Roscoe, Pigs and Dogs addresses Uganda’s Anti-Homosexuality Act, an appalling piece of legislature that originally advocated for the death penalty for those convicted of committing homosexual acts – though this was substituted for life in prison.

It’s a piece about the power of rhetoric, pulpit-thumping and hate-speak, language as cloak and camouflage. It explores how cultural attitudes can be imported and exported, spreading like fire or disease.

Mugabe and Museveni say that homosexuality is alien to African culture, but Churchill’s play shows that same-sex relationships exist, and have always existed. in a variety of forms. There are men who dress as women and who take boys as wives. There are women who live together and love one another.

It’s a piece written for three performers, in this case Sharon D Clarke, Alex Hassell, and Fisayo Akinade. The roles, such as they are, are not divided on gender or racial lines, though, interestingly, in Dominic Cooke’s production, each performer takes on the accent of the person whose words they are speaking. Each new speaker is introduced with the phrase “somebody says” and they range from politicians to anthropologist, 17th century missionaries to the US evangelists determined to “win Africa.” This is an essay for voices as much as it’s a play, but that’s part of its power.

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Caryl Churchill’s taut, short exploration of the relationship between language and politics, thought and action