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Live / stage review

"A tough but rewarding watch": Lines at the Playhouse

Lines is a hard-hitting and thought-provoking play exploring the way prisoners have been treated across half a century – but at times it could use some more breathing space.

9 March 2024 at
John Rwothomack and Fidaa Zidan in Lines Photo by Smart Banda 2

John Rwothomack and Fidaa Zidan in Lines.

Smart Banda

Set in five prisons across five decades, Lines tells the intertwining tales of different protagonists against the political backdrop of Palestine, Uganda and the United Kingdom. Co-created and performed by John Rwothomack and Fidaa Zidan, the play explores the way prisoners have been treated across half a century, touching on themes of gender, political ideology, racism, torture and sexuality.

The play starts with a whistlestop tour of some of the parallels between the political history of Uganda and Palestine – including highlighting that it was the British who first built prisons in both countries – with some of the key dates in those histories going on to form the backdrop of five vignettes centring around five sets of different characters in different prisons in different countries and in different decades.

Rwothomack and Zidan, who are from Uganda and Palestine respectively, had undeniable chemistry, and their story was a mix of autobiographical narrative and imagined scenarios, where they would portray hypothetical situations based on characters who were likely to have been involved in or around those events, which are rooted in history.

The play was hard-hitting and thought-provoking, dealing with difficult subjects head on and causing the audience to consider, challenge or evaluate their own beliefs and to put themselves empathetically in the position of the characters portrayed on stage. Thankfully, there are a handful of lighter moments during the play’s runtime to temporarily disperse some of the darkness and the weighty subject matter that is the main focus.

Presentation wise, the stage consisted of a black backdrop with a number of interlocking silver bars which were maneuvered into different positions to establish the setting of each scene. This worked well and allowed the focus to be on the narrative and the points being put across, whilst also reflecting the bleakness of the situations that the characters found themselves in. The sound design was well-conceived and the choreographed movement on stage worked well.

There were, however, some areas where the play faltered slightly. The rush through the historical chronology at the outset of the play was overwhelming, with facts and dates far too rapidly fired at the audience in quick succession, leading to the loss of the context of many of the scenes which followed. This alienated those audience members without a well-informed prior knowledge of the past struggles the countries had faced, lessening the impact of the message being set out.

Equally, with so much crammed into the short runtime, there was insufficient space for any meaningful character development, thereby providing the audience with a snapshot of the lives of someone that they had not particularly connected with or had an opportunity to build up a relationship with – again, lessening the impact that the piece could have had.

That said, Lines was a tough but rewarding watch, and one which left the audience with much to consider, discuss and process long afterwards. Its nonlinear approach worked well. There was much to commend and it's always a pleasure to see small-scale productions providing such thought-provoking theatre. But it would have been more effective with some clearer scene setting, more breathing space for the characters portrayed, and less reliance on an assumption of shared prior knowledge between the writers and the audience.

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