The National’s Connections festival offers a season of 10 short plays by leading playwrights including Roy Williams, Dennis Kelly, Glyn Maxwell, Judith Johnson and Bryony Lavery. The plays have been written for, and are performed by, young people from 200 youth groups and I had the great privilege to see one of them.
The Sweetness of a Sting opens with three friends exchanging pranks on stage. One of them shows his stung bottom to the others, provoking the utmost outrage of one (Badger, the protagonist of our story), and the incontrollable laughter of the other. Once all buttocks are back in their pants, Badger breaks up the news: his parents have decided they want to move back to Nigeria. Badger, born and bred in South-London, looks at his family’s home country as this strange, unfamiliar, dangerous even, place, and asks his friends to help him find an escape. The three hence decide to meet after a few hours in the same place to plan a run-away strategy.
Once alone, however, Badger, hit by a sudden tiredness, decides to lay down on the lawn and wakes up in the size (but not shape) of an insect, with the blades of grass towering on him. First, he jumps into a community of playful spiders. When asking them what this place is and what he’s doing here, the web of stories with which they (quite literally) siege him are incomprehensible and confusing. However, one clear message is passed: that Badger should watch himself from the belligerent Ants. This symbolises how hard communication with a different people can be, and how this often can originate mutual diffidence.
The army of ants is next. They rhyme expertly thanks to the soulful writing of Chinonyerem Odimba, in a way that makes it even harder for Badger to understand how to find his way out from this dream-like world.
They too warn him against an antagonistic group of insects: the Ladybirds, who make their entrance on stage on a Beyonce song and whose provocative moves and fingers-snapping in the face of an astounded Badger reminded me of the Mean Girls’ assault on a timorous Linsday Lohan. This time, two lines in particular stand out: “If you’re not one of us, then you are a stranger” and “Stick with what you know”. This reflects the type of mind-set that is common amongst many and that it is our protagonist’s feat to challenge.
The Ladybirds tell Badger that the only way to set himself and them free from the confining walls of the Hive, is to tell the Queen a story sweet enough that her sting might have the power to defeat the bitterness that poisons the Hive because of the divisionism and conflict between the different groups of insects. It was the insects themselves who built it as a kind of ‘protection’, which however at the end reveals itself being a physical and psychological prison. The Hive constitutes a metaphor of one’s closure against new experiences and different people and places, as is Badger’s refusal of visiting Africa. The story has to be about all insects, so to find a union between them.
After everyone has been freed, Badger wakes up, back in his human world. He has a renewed perspective on things now, as he will explain later to his friends. After realising there is not only one way of living and being and that he should not let himself being imprisoned by certain mental chains, he is happy to follow his parents to Nigeria and find out more about himself and his heritage.
The Sweetness of a Sting is a play about youth and identity, which provokes reflection but also plays with one’s imagination. The modest staging is encompassed by a wonderful use of bodies and space, and the liricity of Odimba’s language is truly a thing of beauty.