Our Lady of Kibeho at the Theatre Royal Stratford East review *****

Our Lady of Kibeho

Theatre Royal Stratford East, 31st October 2019

Old Billers, now set to enjoy retirement as he steps down from his job as chief critic at the Guardian, knows a thing or two about theatre. So, when he identified, with his colleagues, OLOK as one of the best original plays of the C21, it reinforced the need to see it. There are plenty of other crackers on the list. I would concur with the likes of The York Realist, Escaped Alone, King Charles III, The Ferryman, Enron, The Watsons, Sing Yer Heart Out For The Lads, Caroline, or Change, One Man Two Guvnors and the Lieutenant of Inishmore, some of Billers’ other choices, but would be tempted to add Oil, Hangmen, John, Sweat, Love and Information and A Number to the list.

Anyway I missed OLOK at the Royal and Derngate so was very pleased to see it pop up in Stratford and, correctly as it turned out, ventured that this would be something which would pique the SO’s interest. For OLOK is an extraordinary story based on “real” events. Kibeho is a small village in SW Rwanda, home to a Catholic convent secondary school where, in the early 1980s, apparitions of the Virgin Mary appeared to three of the students, Alphonsine Mumureke, Anathalie Mukamazimpaka and Marie Claire Mukangango. The Virgin specifically warned in August 1982 of a Rwanda descending into hated and violence, seen as a premonition of the war and 1994 Genocide, though tensions between Hutu and Tutsi were already escalating. The school itself was destroyed in 1995 with the girls involved, (there were other claimed visionaries), themselves fleeing or dying at the hands of the Hutu militia.

In 1988 the local bishop, Augustin Misago, who was subsequently accused and acquitted of involvement in the Genocide, approved devotion at the site and the Catholic Church eventually sanctified the visionaries. Kihebo is now a place of pilgrimage. Katori Hall’s play, which was first produced in New York in 2014, pretty much cleaves to the story, with this much dramatic material to work with why wouldn’t you, and works not just because it examines the horror of what happened in Rwanda in those dark years, but also the nature of faith and the workings of the Catholic Church. And it does this not with clunky exposition, exaggerated dialogue or blundering censure, but with compassion and through concentrating on these very human characters.

Against the backdrop of Jonathan Fensom’s straightforward but effective set, a room in the hermetic convent, paint faded on the mud and plaster walls, we meet the three girls at the centre of the visitation, played by Taz Munya, Liyah Summers and Pepter Lunkuse, as well as their classmates, actors Aretha Ayeh, Michaela Blackburn, Perola Congo and Rima Nsubuga. The girls display the usual cliquey rivalries exacerbated by Hutu/Tutsi division. All of these young actors convinced, helped by voice and dialect coach Hazel Holder, though Taz Munya as Alphonsine, the naive newcomer and “first” of the visionaries, and Pepter Lunkase, as Marie-Claire, the bullying leader of the Hutu girls who initially mocks Alphonsine, before herself succumbing to the full on Marian experience. Movement director Diane Alison-Mitchell, as well as magic and aerial consultants, John Bulleid and Vicki Amedume when it comes to the end of act I coup de theatre, deserves immense credit for making the ecstatic visitations very real, even a little bit disturbing, though of course I wouldn’t actually know what it is to be called upon by VM.

The tolerant Father Tuyisheme, (a fine performance from Ery Nzaramba), a Tutsi whose wife has already been murdered, initially is the only one who believes the girls who fawn over him, but gradually the evidence of their own eyes persuades the domineering and envious Hutu Sister Evangelique (Michelle Asante), the lofty bishop Gahamanyi (Leo Wringer) and, when he is sent from the Vatican to asses the evidence, the sceptical Father Flavia (Michael Mears). Though their reasons for back-pedalling are not always pure and holy as the hierarchy sees the potential financial benefits of having a pilgrimage site in the middle of Africa, and even the increasingly uncomfortable good Father Tuyisheme plays along with the Church’s testing conditions. The credibility of what the visionaries claimed to see only became clear in retrospect of course, recognised “officially” in 2001, and the rebuilt church in Kibeho now is a magnet for tens of thousands visitors from across the Catholic world. (Anathalie Mukamazimpaka now lives on the site: Marie Claire Mukangang was murdered there).

Now, if, like the Tourist, you think all this visitation and Virgin Mary cult stuff is all nonsense, don’t worry, it won’t stop you enjoying the play. I haven’t seen Katori Hall’s previous feted play, The Mountaintop, set the day before Martin Luther King’s assassination, but she entrusted its direction at the Theatre 503 where it first appeared in the UK, to James Dacre, now the AD at the Royal and Derngate, and she has done the same here. I can see why. There are, of course, obvious parallels with classic plays such as The Crucible and Saint John (and, if you will forgive the re-location, Lynn Nottage’s Ruined), but this is very much an original. The value of faith against such a harrowing backdrop is questioned, as are the motives for the acceptance of the miraculous, but always in a modest and equivocal way, which Mr Dacre is attuned to, as is Charles Balfour’s lighting, Claire Windsor’s sound and Orlando’s Gough’s composition.

A thought-provoking subject and production, full of fine detail, that never loses sight of plot or character. And by occupying a time, before, and a place, apart, from the war to come Ms Hall succeeds in amplifying her message. It is no surprise then that MB rated it so highly and that we concurred. Whilst I can’t pretend that Tina the Musical, for which Katori Hall wrote the book, is on my list of must sees, I confessed to being intrigued by the premise of the TV show she has created, P-Valley, (though, as usual, I will rely on LD and BD to explain how and where to access it), and will keep a weather eye out for any new or revived theatre work from her.

The Permanent Way at The Vaults review *****

The Permanent Way

The Vaults, 13th October 2019

I have to hand it Debbie Hicks and Alexander Lass, producer and director of The Permanent Way. Whilst David Hare’s 2003 verbatim dissection of the Tory rail privatisation in the 1990s, and the four fatal disasters which followed, is an undeniably powerful piece of theatre, which was praised at the time, it takes guts to revive it. Especially in a two month run. With a cast of nine. Admittedly the economics at the Vaults are attractive for theatre makers and performers, that is why the Festival goes from strength to strength, and the USP of a site specific production about the railways, under Waterloo with trains rumbling every few minutes, is self evident. And a few coats, uniforms, lamps and four benches is all that was needed set and costume wise (Ruth Hall). Even so I was surprised when this was announced, though very pleased as it had been on my watch list for years.

I was even more surprised that the Vaults was packed with twenty somethings on the Sunday afternoon when I attended. I guess this is ancient history from their perspective but then again, as our politics and civic discourse becomes more polarised, and with rail nationalisation firmly on Labour’s policy agenda, I guess the relevance of the play needs no explanation.

Now when I was their age, fresh out of uni, and keen to do something worthwhile, I sought work in the public sector. Civil service exams completed it was off for interviews at various departments (at least I think that was the chronology). Ever the statto, Department of Transport was top of the list. Some kind mandarin chaps quizzed me on the thorny issue of rail privatisation, already firmly on Thatcher’s agenda. To paraphrase I said it was a shite idea. How to split infrastructure from operations and how to make competition work across a fixed capital public good? The chaps didn’t really demur. Didn’t get an offer mind but it was pretty clear that if this jejune, if opinionated, grad could see this was bonkers idea, then so could everyone tasked to make it happen. From one entity to 113.

And so it came to pass. David Hare offers us a High Powered Treasury Thinker (Lucas Howe), a Senior Civil Servant (Jonathan Coote) and an Investment Banker (Anna Acton) to walk us through the how and why of privatisation, all retrospectively seeking exculpation. Wendy (Sakuntanla Ramanee), in a neat touch, just makes the tea. A turn of the political wheel and we meet John Prescott (Paul Dodds) and a Senior Rail Executive (Tej Obano) who ooze complacency. A Very Experienced Rail Engineer (Jonathan Tafler) warns of the dangers presented by the split of responsibilities and the lax safety regime, driven by commercial imperatives, before the four “accidents” are forensically examined. Southall (19th September 1997, 7 dead, 150 injured), Ladbroke Grove (5th October 1999, 31 dead, 523 injured), Hatfield (17th October 2000, 4 dead, 70+ injured) and Potters Bar (10th May 2002, 7 dead, 76 injured). For those that doubt the connections, after all the actions taken in the years after these tragedies, there have been minimal fatalities on Britain’s railways, outside of incidents on level crossings.

The cast, including Jacqui Dubois and Gabrielle Lloyd as well as the above, take on the roles of the bereaved, union leaders, campaigners and pivotally, a British Transport Policeman (Jonathan Coote), the MD of the eventually nationalised Railtrack (Lucas Hare), yes it turned out you couldn’t leave the infrastructure in private sector hands, and a Bereaved Widow, the author Nina Bawden, whose husband died at Potters Bar (Gabrielle Lloyd). The diversion into the schisms between the various groups of the bereaved feels prescient.

The play was inspired by Guardian journalist Ian Jack’s book, the Crash That Stopped Britain, and was based on interviews carried out by the cast of those involved selected by Max Stafford-Clark and transport journalist Christian Wolmar, (who I see is not standing this time as the Labour candidate in Richmond Park where, one expects, the hypocrite and quarter billionaire Zac Goldsmith, will lose out to the Lib Dems). This process is classic Joint Stock Theatre, which was founded by Hare and Stafford-Clark and out of which the original creator of The Permanent Way, Out of Joint …. well, emerged.

What is extraordinary is that David Hare added very little in terms of connecting tissue to the interviews. All he did was extract and order. Given the subject matter it is unsurprising just how vital and moving so much of the testimony is. What is surprising however is just how well it works as drama. There is a bit of policy wonking at the start but nothing intimidating and by the time we got to the aftermath of the crashes I was properly immersed. Of course it helps that this interests, and angers, me, but I think the rest of the audience were similarly engrossed.

For that we must thank director Alexander Lees, the movement, in a very tight transverse space, of Sian Williams, the lighting of Rick Fisher and the sound of Roly Witherow. And a very committed cast. The setting helped but this would have been just as effective in a standard theatre. A string of 3* reviews seemed a little stingy in my view. Political theatre at its best. And every single word is true.

Of course you could always just nip “upstairs” to see the complex in action, or, more often than not, inaction. And this at the London terminal for South Western Railways, better looked after than most because all us posh types use it. An under-invested infrastructure, owned and operated by the state at arms length through Network Rail, (most of the track, stations and signalling), regulated by the Office of Rail Regulation, with passenger train operators under short term franchises awarded by the Department of Transport, or through open access, and freight operators through open competition, paying to use that infrastructure. Rolling stock in the hands of leasing companies, sub-contractors a plenty for maintenance. Most franchises receive subsidies, with contracts and legalese rampant, conditions on service, punctualities and control of fares never ending. And of course there is the irony that one way or another most of the operating companies involve a European state owned rail company (Keolis, Deutsche Bahn, Nederlandse Spoorwegen, MTR Hong Kong and soon Trenitalia). Ooh and then there’s LNER, accidentally nationalised. I am pretty sure this was never the intention of the Thatcherite nutters. We pay more (fares and subsidies) and get less. Go figure.

Amsterdam at the Orange Tree Theatre review ***

Amsterdam

Orange Tree Theatre, 5th October 2019

The UK premiere of Israeli playwright Maya Arad Yasur’s “strikingly original, audacious thriller”. Hmm. Striking yes. Original. I guess so. Audacious thriller. Not so sure. It is a fascinating story with a powerful message but its formal construction serves to distract and obfuscate rather than illuminate.

An Israeli violinist, living in Amsterdam, and about to give birth, receives an unpaid gas bill dating from 1945. From this premise the cast of four, deliberately diverse, tell the story of how this came to happen ranging across time, place and character. They start off bickering about where to start, interrupt, and comment on, each other, fracture and distort their narratives and regularly interrupt to ring a bell to amplify or translate. It takes time to adjust to the structure and the script is packed with details, repetitions, overtones and undertones, which can make events hard to follow.

Maya Arad Yasur (through Eran Edry’s translation) makes sure we understand the complexity and self-fabrication of narrative through her conceit and highlights the corrosive effect of hostility to the “other” but the expansion into contemporary conflict has the perverse effect of blunting the central historical fact. Over 75% of the Jewish population in the Netherlands was murdered by the Nazis and once the war was over, those returning home were forced to pay the utility bills of their wartime occupiers. The unnamed violinist’s own investigation, and disturbing discovery, and her personal journey as immigrant and mother to be, strike me as more than enough to make the point. Especially when the “scenes”, the arrival of the €1700 bill, the blithe response of the bureaucrat, the paranoiac unease in the supermarket, the birth anxiety, the “discussions” with her agent and the hairdresser, emerge through the conceptual fog. Dramatisation would have equally served as provocation and testament. We might then have been better able to see more clearly what she could see in a “foreign” place haunted by history.

I am all for experimentation and can’t fault the performances of Daniel Abelson, Fiston Barek, Michal Horowicz and Hara Yannas but, at the end of the day, this was harder work than I wanted it to be. Director Matthew Xia, as the new head honcho of the Actors Touring Company, who co-produced this with the OT and Theatre Royal Plymouth, is obviously a true believer in the power of the work though his previous engagements, Blood Knot here, Wish List at the Royal Court and the revival of Blue/Orange at the Young Vic, show his is equally at home in more naturalistic forms. Here though he opts to exaggerate the already contrived structure with lurches in tone and pace, simple staging (designed by Naomi Kuyck-Cohen) with dissonant props and constant motion (Jennifer Jackson).

The production will run in Plymouth in February next year before moving on to Salisbury, Glasgow, Manchester, Oxford, Coventry, Leeds, Birmingham, Newcastle and Bath. On balance? You should see it.

The Last King of Scotland at the Sheffield Crucible review *****

The Last King of Scotland

Crucible Sheffield, 28th September 2019

The Tourist generally agrees with all those smart people paid to review theatrical productions. That is a) because they now what they are doing, they are experts with experience and should be listened to, rather than some halfwit with his/her half baked opinions on social media, and b) because, and this is a subset of a), those professional opinions will inevitably influence the ever reflexive Tourist even if he waits until after he has seen an entertainment before passing comment.

Sometimes though I just think they are wrong. With The Last King of Scotland being a case in point. To be fair it did get some decent reviews in the local and specialist theatre press but the broadsheets gave it a pasting. And I cannot, for the life of me, see why. The elements of stagecraft used to convey the story were resoundingly successful in my view and any criticism focussed on the characters, most specifically Doctor Nicholas Garrigan, is misplaced. Why the fictional good Scottish doctor ended up tending the monster Idi Amin is an enigma, not answered in Giles Foden’s book, nor in this adaptation from Steve Waters. Is it fear? Is it professional pride? Is it love? We never know and that is exactly why the story is so compelling in my view.

Now I am a big fan of both book and the film 2006 film, directed by Kevin Macdonald, who also oversaw the film of Touching the Void, taken from a very fine book which itself is the current subject of an excellent theatrical make-over courtesy of David Greig. Who in turn is responsible for another current play of a film(s) of a book in the form of Solaris at the Lyric Hammersmith. The screenplay for TLKOS was penned by Jeremy Brock and no less than Peter Morgan, whose sumptuous magnum opus The Crown you may have heard of and is just about to return to our screens complete with its new roster of A list actors. Note that the Tourist and the SO last night took in Lungs at the Old Vic starring the outgoing Queen Liz and Phil the Greek in Claire Foy and Matt Smith. It’s a small world this drama lark.

Anyway the film deservedly earned Forrest Whittaker an Oscar for his portrayal of Idi Amin Dada Oumee and plenty of praise for the lovely James McAvoy, soon due to grace the London stage in Cyrano. No less than Gillian Anderson and David Oyelowo starred alongside them, but for me the best performance came from Simon McBurney OBE who played Stone, the jaded Foreign Office flunkey who attempts to recruit Garrigan to the British cause as they switch tracks and watch on helplessly as Amin rises to power. I always assume Mr McBurney takes on these film roles to fund his day job as one of the planet’s greatest theatre makers through his company Complicite, but he is never less than compelling even in the likes of Harry Potter or Mission Impossible.

In this stage adaptation however it is hard to take your eyes off Tobi Bamtefa who plays Amin, from the coup in Uganda which overthrew the repressive regime of Milton Obote in 1971 through to his deposal in 1979 and the return of Obote and civil war. Mr Bamtefa was a member of the original Barber Shop Chronicles cast and had a small part in Lee Hall’s adaptation of Network at the NT, as well as a few TV roles, and he is set to join the cast of Inua Ellams’s Three Sisters, set in Nigeria and coming up at the NT. But this was his first major stage opportunity I believe and he grabbed it with both ample hands. The character of the imposing, capricious Amin comes with audience preconceptions, (at least those old enough or interested enough to know something of the history), but, for me, Tobi Bamtefa was utterly convincing. Impossible to take your eyes off him as he turns from briskly comic to bizarrely cruel in an instant. Which is exactly as it should be. The scenes between him and Daniel Portman’s Garrigan were electric, from the early encounter when the doctor fixes Amin’s hand all the way through to full blown bedroom meltdown at the end. Adventure, idealism, influence, fear, fascination, love are all a part of why Garrigan stays long after, morally, he should have escaped. And, like all evil tyrants, Amin exerts a powerful charisma alongside brutal, erratic power. That is the warning from history which the play delivers.

Although the two leads dominate there are strong supporting performances from Akuc Boc as Kay Amin and Joyce Omotola as his other wife Malyam, as well as John Omole as Peter Mbalu-Mukasa, Garrigan’s doctor colleague and Kay’s lover. The scene where Garrigan refuses to perform and abortion for the couple, despite knowing the consequences for them should Amin find out, is riveting. Baker Mukasa plays Jonah Wasswa, the Minister of Health and eventually just about everything else, George Eggay the Archbishop who defies Amin and Hussina Raja is, amongst other roles, Pritti, a Ugandan Asia who takes on Amin at the time of the expulsion. Peter Hamilton Dyer is Perkins the hapless ambassador, Eva-Jane Willis his inhibited wife who rebuffs Garrigan’s advances and Mark Oosterveen plays Stone, here linked to the secret services.

Last King of Scotland aficionados will see that the plot here is much closer to book than film, which latter took a few liberties with Giles Foden’s original events and characters. To be fair, with its fictional TV clips with three recurring journalists (local, UK and US) to provide historical exposition, these events do move on at a fair lick which perhaps overly accelerates Amin’s descent from national saviour into crazed murderer. This, together with Garrigan’s, deliberate, passivity, might frustrate some viewers but it worked for me. Gbolahan Obisesan’s direction, (whose adaptation of Chigozie Obioma’s novel The Fisherman is well worth seeing), doesn’t try to resolve this equivocation which makes the central message even more disturbing. It is pretty easy to think that, confronted with such atrocity, we would walk away if we could but, more often that not, the reality is we wouldn’t, instead choosing to become complicit in the horror.

There are plenty of memorable scenes visually, facilitated by Rebecca Brower colourful set and costume designs, Sally Ferguson’s lighting and Donato Wharton’s sound, even if sometimes the spacious Crucible stage swallows up the action. The film’s infamous meat hook scene is here eschewed but the horror is still effectively conveyed with a grisly scene near the end. Theatre cannot of course convey the immensity of such horror but it can, think Macbeth, Titus Andronicus or Richard III, try to get inside the mind of the man who presides over it. The Last King of Scotland doesn’t get anywhere close to this, that would be too much to ask, but as a slice of theatre, and history, with a moral message, this definitely worked.

The King of Hell’s Palace at the Hampstead Theatre review ***

The King of Hell’s Palace

Hampstead Theatre, 17th September 2019

This was an interesting choice as the first production in Roxana Silbert’s inaugural season at the Hampstead Theatre. A play based on a true story about corruption scandal in China. From a US playwright, (who spent part of her childhood living in China), Frances Ya-Chu Cowhig, with an established reputation: her play The World Of Extreme Happiness, which covers similar ground, and offers similar criticism as TKOHP, came to the National in 2013. Directed by veteran director Michael Boyd, (last here with Tony Kushner’s The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide …., and on top form with Tamburlaine at the RSC last year). With a largely British East Asian cast, (though the one exception, US import Celeste Den, understandably attracted some ire given the paucity of BEA casting generally in UK theatre).

Yet the biggest surprise of all was just how clunky the play was. It is an ambitious story well worth telling, no doubt about that,. but to tell it Frances Ya-Chu Cowhig lays on the exposition with a veritable trowel. In the first half especially character after character is made to explain what is happening in momentum-throttling detail. Often for no good reason as it really isn’t that difficult to fathom what is going on. OK so maybe the multiple doubling, and more, of roles starts off as being a little confusing, and I guess part of the aim of the explanation is to delineate each character, but the main players quickly emerge. Ms Den plays Yin Yin, an expert in epidemiology at a Ministry of Health institute. Christopher Goh is her initially supportive, but ultimately pusillanimous, scientist husband Shen. Kok-Hwa Lie is his brother and Yin-Yin’s boss Kuan, who oversees the dastardly scheme, driven by avarice and Party loyalty, and Millicent Wong is Jasmine, the Lady Macbethian nurse who becomes his shameless sidekick.

This four also play members of the extended family of farmers, alongside Aidan Cheng, Tuyen Do, veteran actor Togo Igawa and Vincent Lai, which is destroyed by the get-rich-quick scandal. In 1989 blood plasma collection stations spring up rapidly in rural China to sell to local blood product companies. By 1992, when TKOHP begins, the practice has spread to Henan province with the samples eventually being exported to an unscrupulous US pharma company. Peasants and local officials are rapidly enriched. But this leads to the rapid spread of Hepatitis C and HIV infection. Even after the industry is regulated. Cover ups follow. The State finally admits to the extent of HIV/AIDS in the early 2000s. Even so another blood plasma and vaccine scandal erupts in early 2019. All this was documented by Dr Wang Shuping, on whom the character of Yin Yin is based, and who, like the character, was finally forced to flee China for the US. As you will surmise the good doctor, who I gather attended the emotional press night, is not especially well liked by the Chinese state who would rather the play disappeared.

Like I say good story with relevance beyond its setting. But to pack its many short scenes in to a couple of hours ex interval, required substantial inventiveness on the part of Michael Boyd, movement director Liz Ranken and the rest of the creative team, notably Colin Grenfell’s lighting. Entrances and exits come thick and fast from the central opening at the back of Tom Piper’s sparse set, from side doors and from either side of the stalls. This is accelerated by a cunning pair of moving walkways that run through the middle of the stage, and offer visual metaphor at crucial points. Myriad costume changes are largely achieved off stage and props carted on and off by the cast. It is a triumph of logistics but, along with the expository overload in dialogue described above, does rather come at the expense of character insight.

Even so, given the enthusiasm of the cast, the intricacy of the staging and as the true extent of the crime is laid bare in the second half, it is difficult not to be carried along by the narrative of greed. It isn’t Ibsen’s Enemy of the People (more of that soon – watch this space) but it is shocking and it does highlight Yin Yin’s bravery and the sacrifice she is prepared to make. And it is clearly written and made by people who care which counts for a lot.

The Secret River at the National Theatre review ****

The Secret River

National Theatre Olivier, 29th August 2019

This must have been tough. Sydney Theatre Company’s production of The Secret River is an epic production, in terms of the story it tells and the way it tells it, involving numerous creatives and a large cast, over 40 people in total. All came over to headline the Edinburgh Festival and then move on to the NT. And then the heart of the production, Ningali Lawford-Wolf, a leading First Nations activist and performer, who played Dhirrumbin, the narrator of the story, passed away suddenly in Edinburgh. Her family and the creative team agreed to go ahead, Pauline Whyman stepped in and we were fortunate enough to see, (and hear and smell), this marvellous slice of theatre. So thank you all.

Now when I say epic this doesn’t mean the play loses the human dimension. The Secret River, based on Kate Grenville’s award winning novel, (part of a trilogy), is a fiction intended to explore Australia’s colonial past but at its heart are two families struggling to survive. Ms Grenville was prompted to write the book, following the May 2000 Reconciliation Walk, to understand the history of her ancestor, Solomon Wiseman, who settled on the Hawkesbury River. It tells the story of William Thornhill whose death sentence for petty theft is commuted to transportation to New South Wales for life in 1806. He arrives with wife Sal and children and is eventually able to buy his freedom to start afresh. The family’s encounters with the Aboriginal people of Australia, and their relationship with other settlers, good and bad, is explored, culminating in violence. Thornhill’s determination to own and tame “his” 100 acres of land is contrasted with the Aboriginal family’s bewilderment at the very idea and with Sal’s desire to return “home”. Thornhill may be a good man in some ways but cannot stop himself from dehumanising his indigenous neighbours, though by the end his guilt is manifest.

Not having read the book I can’t be sure how tightly Andrew Bovell’s adaptation cleaves to the original story, but director Neil Armfield, associate Stephen Page and dramaturg Matthew Whittet take full advantage of the dramatic opportunity it affords. A simple brown ochre suspended cloth creates a cliff face thanks to set designer Stephen Curtis, Tess Schofield offers simple but authentic costumes and Mark Howett’s lighting is superb. The sound design of Steve Francis and especially the score of composer Iain Grandage, brilliantly realised by Isaac Hayward through piano (keys and strings), cello and electronics, is one of the best I have ever experienced. The full extent of the Olivier stage, and theatrical technique, is used to conjure up this bend of the Hawkesbury River in 1813/14.

The play was first performed in 2013 in Sydney to rave reviews. Which is unsurprising giving just how well the story is told and the power of the message. But you don’t need to be Australian to appreciate that message. The ugly truth of colonisation and the damage done to the culture and society of First Nations people (in Australia and by implication elsewhere) is laid bare but through metaphor not didactically, and the motivations of the characters are made real in actions as much as words. The indigenous Dharug family begins by voicing their apprehension at what the settlers might bring, whilst Thornhill justifies his claim to the land by saying they are effectively nomads who choose not secure land or crops. Curiosity gives way to conflict. Any hope of shared understanding soon flounders on the greed, and/or desperation, of the settlers.

The performances are excellent led by Georgia Adamson as the ruminative Sal, Nathanial Dean as her less thoughtful husband, Elma Kris doubling up as Buryia and Dulla Din, the wife of Blackwood (Colin Moody), Dubs Yunupingu, similarly as Gilyaggan and Muruli, Major “Moogy” Sumner AM as the patriarch Yalamundi, Joshua Brennan as the conniving Dan Oldfield, Jeremy Sims as the vicious Smasher Sullivan and Bruce Spence as the erudite Loveday. (For those of a certain vintage you will remember Bruce as the pilot in Mad Max 2 and 3).

And, of course, Pauline Whyman. Her narration needs to shape and reflect the rhythm of the story, which can’t have been easy after, literally, a few hours of rehearsal. Dhirrumbin is the Dharug name for the Hawkesbury, suggesting, as much of her script does, that she was their long before any human ever arrived. And that she knows how this tragedy will end. It is she that provides the way into not just this place but also the emotional hinterland of the two peoples and, specifically provides the Dharug with a voice for us to understand. Unlike the book the play doesn’t just see these people solely through the eyes of the white settlers. Initially however Andrew Bovell and his team had no language for them to speak. Until actor Richard Green joined the original cast. As a Dharug man he was able to show that their language was very much alive and went on translate and show the cast how to speak and sing it. The Anglicised names of the Dharug in the book could now be reclaimed in their own language and we could begin to understand how they might perceive a history which they had not written.

A theatre saddo, loafer and tightwad like the Tourist can be relied on to fill in the surveys that theatres send out post performance. Do you go to the theatre to be entertained, inspired or educated they say. In the case of The Secret River I can definitively say all three. Equally. And the SO who came along is set to read the book. No higher praise is possible.

Faith Ringgold at the Serpentine Galleries review ****

Faith Ringgold

Serpentine Galleries, 22nd August 2019

Once again it has taken the Tourist way too long to gather his thoughts on something he has seen. Which means this snappy retrospective of the work of Africa- American artist has now finished. Sorry. It was Very Good. I guess that doesn’t help.

I first encountered Ms Ringgold’s work at the Soul of a Nation exhibition at Tate Modern in 2017. Thematic anthologies are always a dream for an art numpty like the Tourist, giving an opportunity to discover all manner of ideas and artists, but this exhibition was especially fertile. Norman Lewis, Romare Bearden, Charles White, (especially) David Hammons, Timothy Washington, Barkley Hendricks and Melvin Edwards. All blokes. Which made Betye Saar and especially Faith Ringgold stand out, because not only does their art tackle issues of race, African-American identity and history, it also powerfully explores gender inequality.

Given Ms Ringgold’s engagement with the civil rights and feminist movements in the US over her five decade career it is perhaps surprising to learn that this the first exhibition devoted solely to her work in Europe let alone the UK. Through paintings, posters, books, sculpture, performance and her fascinating quilts she makes acute political points whose relevance has certainly not declined with time. Through her teaching and through the National Black Feminist Organisation which she founded in 1973 with her artist daughter Michelle Wallace, Ms Ringgold has been as much activist and influencer, (with real purpose, not like today’s self-obsessed “model/icons”), as artist.

She was born (1930) in Harlem where she grew up immersed in jazz culture and the legacy of the Harlem Renaissance, majored in art education and started her career teaching. She began painting in the 1950s and 1960s influenced by African art, Impressionism and Cubism and inspired by writers such as James Baldwin and Amiri Baraka. She turned to art full time in 1973.

This survey opens with 7 paintings from her American People series from 1963 to 1967 which examines social inequality and racial tensions at the height of the Civil Rights movement from a woman’s perspective. These works formed the core of her inaugural exhibition at the Spectrum Gallery in 1967. The large scale US Postage Stamp Commemorating The Advent Of Black Power about sums it up. Oversizing a stamp, Pop Art style, depicting 100 sets of eyes and noses, in a grid, with 10 black faces across the diagonal, (symbolising the 10% of the population that was African American in 1967), the worlds BLACK POWER are spelled out across the other diagonal, but with WHITE POWER not so subtly encrypted horizontally. As with her quilts later on you are presented with an arresting overall image, here using flat, bright paint, which demands further detailed inspection, even after the message has made its mark. At the time FR said she did not have a clear idea of what Black Power represented but she did feel the need to ask the question about how women would fit into the struggle. And, if you ever wondered where the inspiration for the iconic Obama Hope poster campaign came from look no further.

In the 1970’s she led protests against the representation of women and Black artists in galleries, designed posters to support her politics and organised The People’s Flag Show in 1973 where she was arrested for “desecrating” the American flag. Her paintings darkened in tone, drawing from African art and, away from traditional oils. She began to explore the potential in fabric after being stirred by the C14 and C15 Tibetan tanka paintings that she saw in the Rijksmuseum on a visit to Europe in 1972.

Less convincingly to my eyes were the abstract works from the Windows of the World series made with her fashion designer mother Willi Posey. This diverse practice was represented in Room 2 but. based on the punters when I visited, one work in particular reels you in. The United States of Attica dates from 1971/72, prompted by the Attica NY prison riots where 43 people died, and depicts a map of the US in green, red and black, the colours of Marcus Garvey’s black nationalist flag, recording the details of genocides that have occurred in the US from the colonial era.

In the 1980s FR first turned to the story quilts for which she is best known and which form the heart of this exhibition. These incorporate images and text to present the inter-generational stories of African American women from slavery through to the present, often painful and poignant, but also powerful and uplifting. FR’s great-great grandmother Susie Shannon, born into slavery, was compelled to sew quilts for plantation owners.

I was particularly struck by the triptych of quilts extracted from the Slave Rape series which show naked women modelled on FR’s daughters fleeing through stylised undergrowth. The colours and lines reflect the rich textiles of Central Africa, the images are made more alarming by the absence of the pursuers. Then there is Who’s Afraid of Aunt Jemina? from 1983 which reimagines the racist stereotype from interwar minstrel shows used in the pancake mix brand as a determined matriarch who runs her own restaurant chain. The embroidering is exquisite, the characters sparkle, the text demands to be read. Rare sight to see people. after the regulation snap on their phones then standing still to follow the story across four generations. The other highlight was the personal Change: Faith Ringgold’s Over 100 Pounds Weight Loss Performance Story Quilt from 1986.

Later on in the 1980s FR moved away from narrative quilts to something closer to her earlier oil paintings and, for me at least, some of the classic art of the Harlem Renaissance, most obviously in Jazz Stories . Though the powerful political messages remain. In fact maybe even more so. Even without the text these dense complex works, as in the earlier pieces, need time to fully take in. We Came to America from 1997, part of the American Collection, shows a dreadlocked Statue of Liberty with black baby in one hand and torch in the other, astride an Atlantic Ocean, filled with writhing black bodies. The ship in the background is based on JMW Turner’s The Slave Ship. FR created a fictional artist creator for the series who dreams of walking back across the sea to Africa arm in arm with her brothers and sisters.

The Tar Beach quilt from 1988 is more autobiographical recalling childhood summers spent on the hot roof of her apartment building in Harlem with parents, friends and siblings. This formed the basis for FR’s acclaimed books for children. Subway Graffiti from 1987 shows friends and neighbours crammed on a subways platform with names and tags filling the panels which surround them.

But just in case we get too comfortable this collection ends with something more trenchant in the form of 1997’s The Flag is Bleeding again from the American Collection. We see a black women bleeding from her heart protecting her two small children all against the backdrop of the Stars and Stripes. The title is the same as that used in the American People series which opened the exhibition though that picture shows a black man armed with a knife, a white woman, and a white armed man peering through the bleeding flag.

The exhibition, and this is no criticism, did not include any of FR’s mixed media masks and costumes which she created in 1973, notably the Witch Mask series and the Family of Woman Mask series. Or any of her life-sized soft sculptures, which, like the masks, take inspiration from African art. The masks and costumes, together with music and dance, formed the basis of FR’s performance in the 1970s and 1980s which often retold the stories in her quilts.

Even without these elements this exhibition gave a very clear overview of FR’s practice. This is art with a clear message on behalf of those marginalised by race or gender, aware of its origins and its history. Nothing ambiguous or simplistic here. It elevates materials and making over theory and process, anger over aesthetic, and invites the viewer to take time to reflect on its meaning.

Above all else FR is a story teller. I like stories. And, I’ll bet, you do to. It’s just a shame that some of these stories still have to be told.