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Review of Dismissed at Soho Theatre - A bold, gripping moral quandary for modern times

Rated 🍯🍯🍯🍯

A teacher stands at her table and looks at the audience with a worried look on her face. Georgia-Mae Myers as Ashley in Dismissed at Soho Theatre. Photo credit: Henri T
Georgia-Mae Myers as Ashley in Dismissed at Soho Theatre. Photo credit: Henri T

Highly gripping and thought-provoking, Dismissed is a play without a single dull moment

An idealistic teacher, Ashley is mature enough to understand the complex dynamics of class and race at play in her classroom, but also young enough that the world had not yet atrophied her sense of possibility, resolute spirit and perhaps a slight unwillingness, if not inability, to entertain the idea that the line dividing right and wrong can sometimes be nebulous.

The conflict at the centre of Dismissed arises when Ashley spots one of her students with a hunting knife, brought into school premises — a contravention that, if reported, would get him expelled. She tries to persuade the head-teacher of the school to go easy on the young boy, whereas the head-teacher, Susan, refuses to bend the rules.

While it is tempting to immediately brand Susan the villain for her obstinacy and Ashley the angel for her bleeding heart, it behooves one to understand the arguments on both sides, and the play does a remarkable job of giving adequate airtime to both points of view, so that towards the end, despite the slight disdain one may develop for Susan’s superciliousness or affection for Ashley’s meliorism, the audience was as tormented by the ethical dilemma as the characters in the play.

Dismissed is an excellent illustration of the kind of ethical dilemmas that adults encounter when dealing with miscreant children

The play does a great job at exposing the impossibility of knowing for certain whether children, especially young ones, are acting the way they are with real agency, wilfulness and consciousness of the consequences of their actions, or are they acting unthinkingly as children often do, ambling through life carefree and blissfully ignorant.

It was, undoubtedly, a stroke of genius on the part of writer Daniel Rusteau and director Nikhil Vyas to leave the young boy himself out of the play. Despite being the main subject of the play, and despite the considerable curiosity he evoke in the audience as to his demeanour, intentions and personality, we do not see the boy on stage.

Rusteau surely had his reasons, but it struck me halfway through the play that perhaps the boy does not show himself because it doesn’t, and maybe shouldn’t, matter who the boy is. To play by the rules, as Susan would have it, the boy’s identity is irrelevant. To play by principles, as Ashley would have it, the boy’s identity is again irrelevant. Because rules, or even principles — forgiveness, second chances, reform — should be extended to all children if extended to any one. Taking into account the character of the pupil in question only complicates an already difficult decision.

[Spoiler warning]

When cause and effect relationships are not linear and direct, a dismissal can have oblique consequences

The play is also an exposition of scenarios where doing right by one party has unintended negative consequences on another. What if protecting the interests of one child - like Ashley wanted to do for her pupil - puts other children at risk? Bending the rules sets a bad precedent for other children. Besides, keeping the young boy in school in the name of giving him second chances and reforming his behaviour, unfortunately, does put the other children at risk. What if there comes a moment in the future when something untoward happens because of the teachers’ failures to act today? The present moment is the moment that such a future trajectory can be nipped in the bud, if only someone would make the difficult decision to expel the child.

But expelling him from school may push the child away from education forever, and he may turn to a life of crime, no doubt fuelled by the poverty he is bound to perpetuate in his family if he can’t complete his education. Again, we come back to the present moment - the moment of decision-making - the moment that could potentially determine the rest of this poor boy’s course of life. Is it fair that the two teachers in this story should bear such a big burden on their shoulders? It is very difficult to fault either teacher, and your faithful bee found its respect for the entire profession grow by leaps and bounds.

Because resolving ethical dilemmas involves imagining counterfactual scenarios — painting a picture of the world under every possible course of action that one may taken in this moment — and because only one of these scenarios would eventually manifest, the rest remaining an artefact of imagination in the thinker’s mind forever, it can be a mind-bending torment to decide between right and wrong when the outcome of it is so bleak, uncertain and unpredictable.

Two teachers sitting on chairs, one of them is eating lunch out of a lunchbox, and the other teacher is speaking with him with a slightly worried expression. Rebecca Crankshaw & Jonathan McGuinness. Production image of Dismissed at the Soho Theatre. Photo credit: Henri T.jpg
Rebecca Crankshaw & Jonathan McGuinness. Production image of Dismissed at the Soho Theatre. Photo credit: Henri T

Dismissed is full of delightful subtlety

Ashley’s altruism and relentless commitment to the welfare of every pupil she teaches is inspiring, although she is unable to appreciate the nuances of Susan’s position. A head-teacher has a mandate, after all, to balance an individual student’s welfare against the collective welfare of the remaining students and teachers at the school.

Further, her ostensible altruism also appeared to mask, ever so slightly, a refusal to accept that she couldn’t help every single child under her care, that it was beyond her capacity as a teacher and a human being. A slight resistance to conceding that a situation may now be beyond her control is evident as she refuses to give up even after all necessary decisions are made, making an effort to visit the young boy at his home for her own sake as much as the boy’s.

In sum, Rusteau gives us a beautifully intricate sketch of her character, and actress Georgia-Mae Myers delivers with aplomb. The only - and rather minor - sticking point in this brilliant play is that the remaining characters - two other male teachers at the school - did not leave much of an impact on the bee; they felt almost unnecessary. The mother of the expelled pupil was another minor but intriguing character, and one that I wish the play had explored a little more.

Four stars.

Watched May 2023 at the Soho Theatre Upstairs, London

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