Caryl Churchill’s latest Royal Court offering Pigs and Dogs is, quite literally, a short, sharp shock. It’s short in that it lasts just under a quarter of an hour. It’s sharp in its writing – single, punchy lines spoken alternately by the three cast members. Above all else it’s shocking; its subject matter is Uganda’s 2014 Anti-Homosexuality Act.
Pigs and Dogs is based on Stephen O. Murray and Will Roscoe’s book ‘Boy Wives and Female Husbands: studies in African homosexualities’, an eye-opening post-show read which can be found in full online. Taking her title and provocation from an infamous homophobic remark made by Robert Mugabe, Churchill challenges an entrenched homophobic narrative by examining African myths and histories pre- and post-colonialism.
The play simply calls for “Three actors, any gender or race but not all the same. Each can play any character, regardless of the character’s race or gender.” Fisayo Akinade, Sharon D. Clarke and Alex Hassell step up to the mark and, under Royal Court old-hand Dominic Cooke’s direction, take it in turns to speak the lines. Sometimes adopting various African and European accents, and sometimes speaking in their own, they develop a list of quotes that “somebody” (a rapper, a politician, a woman in Lesotho) said rather than a conversation or a plot. But the text gradually builds up, fragment by fragment, and soon they are revealing a rich account of the sexualities of Africa. “There is no word in any African language that describes homosexual”, somebody says, but there are many for the identities that lie between male and female and straight – the state-sanctioned sexuality – and gay – the orientation that, in Uganda, is punishable by execution.
Bit by bit, Pigs and Dogs reveals the fluidity of sexuality and gender that even in the west we’re only just waking up to. It challenges its audience’s prejudices just as it does Mugabe’s, or Winnie Mandela’s, or the colonisers’. It does all this in less than fifteen minutes. There’s something hypnotic about the way the cast move about the stage as they sub in and out to speak their lines that perhaps suggests the subtle coercion of hate-speak and propaganda. But perhaps it’s just three actors standing on a stage in Sloane Square voicing words we need to hear.
Programmed alongside Unreachable (Anthony Neilson’s experimental comedy that is currently sharing the stage of the Jerwood Theatre Downstairs), Pigs and Dogs emerges as a kind of provocative amuse-bouche. I wish it had been longer, that some of the arguments and stories that Churchill cuts and pastes together could have been drawn out and made to say (and shock) more. But it would be easy to dismiss it as agitprop-lite, theatre for an audience used to listicles and news with 140-character limits. Pigs and Dogs packs a lot into its slim twenty-page script, and its power lies in its brevity. While as a standalone piece Pigs and Dogs leaves its audience wanting more, it’s the perfect catalyst for discussions and debates over a gin and tonic in the bar before heading into the evening’s show.