After deconstructing a Victorian melodrama in An Octoroon and satirising modern tragedy in Gloria, London now gets to see Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’s 2013 take on the dysfunctional American family drama. Only this time the secret which lies at the heart of the Lafayette family is about as shocking as it gets. Move over O’Neill, Williams, Miller, Albee, Hansberry, Wilson, Shepherd and Letts.
Franz (Edward Hogg), Toni (Monica Dolan) and Bo (Steven Mackintosh) have come back to the family home in Arkansas following their Dad’s death, with the intention of selling house and contents. Franz (Francois) is a classic fuck-up, addled by past addiction, but now seeking redemption with new, very young, new-ager girlfriend River (Tafline Steen). He is still hiding something however. Bo (Beauregarde), egged on by Jewish wife Rachael (Jaimi Barbakoff), wants, and needs, to extract the cash asap and get out. They have two kids, Gen Z tween, Cassidy (Isabella Pappas)and hyper 8 year old Ainsley (Oliver Savell). Toni, the eldest, was left to look after their increasingly difficult and infirm father, is therefore the dictionary definition of long-suffering and is keen that everyone knows it. She is joined by slacker teen son Rhys Thurston (Charles Furness).
Not much happens beyond the inevitable arguments and raking over of the past. But this is not just a forum for the frustrations and grudges of the three siblings, though the fact that they seem incapable of restraint makes that forum often mordantly comic. The discovery of a book of photographs of black lynching victims, and worse, suggests that their father, who spent most of his life in the North East before retiring to the family pile, was no upright liberal but the worst sort of racist. Legacy and loss take on a far darker tone with each character’s. mostly, worst traits reflected through the prism of this pivotal disclosure.
As in BJ-J’s other plays, the plotting is perfect, the rhythm sublime and the dialogue riveting. What turns this into one of the best plays of this year though is Fly Davies’s breathtaking set, the junk filled interior of the dilapidated plantation house, which together with Anna Watson’s lighting and Donato Wharton’s, into a gothic place dripping with memory and history. More than that though is Ola Ince’s direction. Ms Ince worked as Assistant to Phyllida Lloyd in the Donmar all woman Shakespeare trilogy as well as Associate positions at the Finborough, the Lyric Hammersmith, Theatre Royal Stratford East and, now, the Royal Court, where she directed Poet in da Corner. On the strength of this I expect her to sustain a glittering career. Everything fell into place faultlessly to deliver a drama which thrilled and edified in equal measure.
Now it helps that all the cast brought their A games to the performance. And it helps even more if one of them is Monica Dolan. Even when she barely has anything to work with Ms Dolan ends up being the best of the best on stage and screen. When it is just her, as in her debut play monologue The B*easts, which should be a GCSE text already, or she has something to really sink her teeth into as here with Toni (Antoinette), she is, cliche alert, a force of acting nature. Bitter doesn’t even come close. And then, as the family history unfolds, increasingly vulnerable. I had to do the thing where I look away to a point above the stage to prevent and embarrassing blub near the end. Magnificent.
Appropriate is audacious, clever, funny, twisty, surprising, absorbing and insightful. By not hammering home, or resolving, the consequences of denying America’s racial past, in fact here that past is turned by the family into potential commodity, he makes us even more aware. The play is haunted by the ghosts of dramatists past. But it knows and relishes that. And what a genius title.
He’s only gone and done it again. Robert Icke, the departing Associate Director at the Almeida, has ended on a high. Like that is any great surprise. Once again he has taken a classic text, this time Arthur Schnitzler’s dissection of anti-Semitism in pre WWI Vienna, and updated it for our contemporary age. Though to be fair it is a pretty good story even without the deconstruction and reconstruction. Yet by expanding the critique, and the central dilemma which underpins it, beyond religion and cultural identity and into gender and race, through both his adaptation and the casting, Mr Icke opens up a whole Pandora’s box of unresolved questions.
There are times when the clever dick nature of the project can irritate but, as I have said before, in the context of his Wild Duck on this stage, he is so, well, clever, that he gets away with it. His self professed aim is to clear away the fusty patina of performance history and get back to the roots of these often disturbing and radical plays. Professor Bernhardi fits the bill perfectly. But as well as bringing the play alive for a modern audience, and making them think, so hard that sometimes it hurts, Mr Icke also rarely fails to entertain us, ensuring the plot is as transparent as the message and the characters.
Of course we are fortunate that one of his favourite collaborators Juliet Stevenson was up for the central role of Doctor Ruth Wolff, an authority in Alzheimer’s disease, who heads up the Elizabeth Institute. She is a secular Jew who doesn’t suffer fools gladly and is dedicated to her calling. She is however unable to prevent a 14 year old Catholic girl from dying who has been admitted to the hospital after a self-administered abortion. She refuses to allow a priest to see the girl just before she passes, a decision that splits her team and has repercussions, social media outrage, petitions and political debate, when it leaks to the outside world. The Institute’s funding is threatened and Dr Wolf is forced to choose between her principles and self sacrifice.
This plot sticks fairly closely to Schnitzler’s original but divisions within the Institute, and outside, open up along gender and racial lines, as well as between Catholic and Jew. This is made more striking as we see that the cast largely plays characters which do not “fit” our perception of their identity and are not identified by name in the programme. Even after you grasp this central conceit it can still surprise, notably when we discover the priest is black. We see how medical ethics are shaped by professional and public opinion, and economics, and how identity, and the language which defines and contains it, can be co-opted for personal and political gain.
Naomi Wirthner is outstanding as the deputy plotting to oust Ruth, accurately capturing male entitlement. Paul Higgins plays the passionate priest with an agenda and Ria Zmitrowicz is once again captivating as the young transgender friend that Ruth inadvertently betrays. Pamela Nomvete and Oliver Alvin-Wilson, as Ruth’s loyal colleagues are pitted against Daniel Rabin, Mariah Louca and, eventually, Kirsty Rider who all see warped principle and pragmatic advantage, in turning against her. All this takes place against the clinical, fluid set design of Hildegard Bechtler, never black or white but shades of grey, with lighting and sound from Natasha Chivers and Tom Gibbons to match. And a live drumming performance from Hannah Ledwidge which serves to discomfort and ratchet up the tension.
If all this sound too tricksy, or woke-y, well it isn’t. Juliet Stevenson brilliantly portrays Ruth as some-one who is right, but hard to like, obdurate and emotionally naive. Her final monologue is shattering, played in conjunction with Joy Richardson, her lost partner, “Charlie”. RI keeps pulling us into arguments that simultaneously assert the inviolability of identity and the strictures and contradictions it can impose. The dichotomy between “freedom to” and “freedom from” as my old history teacher taught me all those years ago. The scene where the sceptical Ruth is interrogated for a TV show “Take the Debate” is the most acute satire of identity politics. And all this is done with sacrificing any momentum in the story: quite the reverse, the near 3 hours just bombs along.
The religious schism which informs the original play just about survives the expansion (primarily through the “right to life” debate which the unseen girl’s abortion precipitates), and there will be some for whom all this subversion detracts from the plot but the Tourist, once again, was awed by Mr Icke’s theatrical genius. I am signed up for his next outing with ITA in Amsterdam based on The Doll’s House and I see his version of Chekhov’s Ivanov is currently pulling then in in Stuttgart. I hope we see him back in Blighty soon though too, ideally having another pop at the Greeks, or maybe some Marlowe or Webster.
No great surprise to learn that this is transferring to the Duke of York’s Theatre from April next year. If you didn’t catch it at the Almeida here’s your shot at redemption.
Royal and Derngate Northampton, 12th September 2019
Another instalment in August Wilson’s Pittsburgh cycle though, four in, the Tourist still has some way to go. Two Trains Running premiered in 1990 and is set in the turbulent 1960s – remember each of the ten play series covers one of the decades of the C20 and all bar one (Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom) are set in the Hill District of Pittsburgh.
All the action in TTR, well words really, for August Wilson’s plays prize dialogue and character over plot, both their strength and their weakness, takes place in 1969 in the neighbourhood diner owned and run by Memphis Lee (Andrew French). The 1960’s saw the economic decline of the Hill District, once a byword for prosperity and cultural relevance in Black America, accelerate, prompting intervention from the Pittsburgh Urban Development Authority. Vast swathes of the neighbourhood were demolished to be replaced by a white elephant Civic Arena and failed public housing projects. Many residents were displaced and the redevelopment became an object lesson in how not to do “urban renewal“. Memphis’s business has seen better days but now he is holding out for the price he thinks it is worth from the City authorities, not just for the money but also to take a stand for the overlooked and disparaged community. He dreams of returning to his Southern roots from where he and so many others were compelled to escape in earlier, darker, decades. Frankie Bradshaw’s set captures this transition with the beautifully detailed diner sporting a hole in its roof above which is suspended a massive wrecking ball.
Memphis is assisted by cook and waitress Risa (Anita-Joy Uwajeh) who constantly has to push back against her boss’s criticism and the sexist comments and assumptions of the regulars. These include the assured West (Geoff Aymer), the local undertaker whose business is thriving, hustler Wolf (Ray Emmet Brown), who uses the diner’s phone to run a numbers racket, and the stoic Holloway, an unemployed painter and decorator, (Leon Herbert). Most poignant though is Hambone, (the excellent Derek Ezenagu), brought low by his obsession with getting fairly paid by the white butcher customer for work he did twenty years ago. The outside world relentlessly encroaches upon the lives of the company, first when the animated ex-con Sterling (Michael Salami) returns to the Hill looking for work and for Risa, and as the rallies, protesting racial injustice, increase in intensity.
Impossible to fault all the performances or the careful direction of Nancy Medina, who was similarly adept with Dael Orlandersmith’s Yellowman at the Young Vic and, I gather, Inua Ellams’s The Half God of Rainfall at the Kiln. Easy to see why she has won both the Peter Hall Directors Award and the Genesis Future Director Award. The lighting and sound design from other young talents Amy Mae and Ed Lewis was equally accomplished. Which means the somewhat discursive nature of events of stage is down to August Wilson alone. That is not to say that the lyrical dialogue, what and how the characters say, isn’t pitch perfect. Just that there is rather to much of it. Too many layers if you will. This is true of the other plays in the cycle I believe but here the contrast of individual reversals with societal transformation is just a little too carefully wrought.
As a production it matches the high standards previously set by English Touring Theatre. As a play maybe not quite as convincing as the others in the cycle I have seen. Still very keen to see further instalments however and given the resonance of the parts that AW wrote for black actors I expect I won’t be waiting too much longer for just such an opportunity.
I am in awe of actors, and indeed other performers, who are prepared to step out on a stage alone to entertain, inspire and educate us. A one character monologue is tricky enough. To present multiple characters surely more so. To inhabit 8 different, very different, people with no more than a jacket and a chair. 8 fictional characters though all based on the testimonies of real people. To also pack a emotional punch, lay bare the fault-lines of race in modern America but never harangue or proselytise. Surely impossible.
Not when Dael Orlandersmith takes to the stage with her work Under the Flood. The Tourist first alighted on Ms Orlandersmith’s work through the revival of Yellowman at the Young Vic a couple of years ago which tells the story of two friends Eugene and Alma across three decades, dissecting race, gender and, especially, colourism, and was way better than anticipated. Until the Flood, where she is both writer and performer, also blew me away despite now raised expectations.
It was first performed in St Louis in 2016 and as a response to the shooting of Michael Brown and in the suburb of Ferguson and the protests that followed. 18 year old unarmed African American Michael Brown was shot by a 28 year old white police officer Darren Wilson in August 2014. The circumstances of the killing were contested with the account of Michael Brown’s friend Dorian Wilson, who was with him, significantly diverging from that of the police officer. The police response to the unrest which followed the killing was viewed by many as excessively heavy-handed. A grand jury decided not to indict Wilson and a US Department of Justice investigation concluded that he had shot Brown in self defence. Many in the community believed this to be a cover-up given inconsistencies in witness statements and forensic evidence and biases in the legal process.
Prior to this short run at the Arcola the play was a highlight at the Edinburgh Festival. Dramatisation of cause celebres is a staple of recent American theatre but DO goes a stage further by attempting to show the character types which inhabit the world where this kind of tragedy is possible, almost inevitable, and to show the behaviours, prejudices and reactions that underpin it. There is Paul, a young black man, consumed by fear of the police and violence, hanging on until he can escape to college. The unapologetic white homophobe racist, Dougray, who revels in his hate, describing how he would gun down a group of black teenagers. Rusty, the retired white police officer who excuses shootings as inevitable given the stresses of the job. Connie, the white liberal woman whose attempts at balance only serve to highlight the assumptions she makes. Louisa, the wise black senior woman who tells us of the overt racism of her childhood, including so-called “sundown” laws. The pumped up, frustrated black youth who only sees disrespect around him. A black, female, lesbian minister who speaks to a convincing tolerance. Reuben, the barber shop owner who refuses to conform to the stereotype that two students, one black, one white, who come to Ferguson to study the case, wish to impose on him.
All these characters become more than their race or situation in DO’s hands – education, class, employment, neighbourhood change, gender roles, all get a look in – but it is race, and maybe more importantly, shared white privilege, is what pulls the narratives together. Takeshi Kata’s set offers a shrine to Michael Brown’s memory backed by video designs from Nicholas Hussong introducing each character and offering, along with Justin Ellington’s sound, snatches of the events in Ferguson. I suspect Neel Keller didn’t have too much to do by way of directing DO who is a mesmeric stage presence. It is tough to listen to, and moving as you would expect, but DO still finds humour.
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.
OK. So let me get this out of the way at the beginning. Paterson Joseph’s one man homage to Charles Ignatius Sancho, the first Black Briton to vote, sometimes comes across as just a little too fulsomely luvvie. Not over-acting but certainly not holding back. Mr Joseph passionately cares about this project. And Mr Sancho was a big man. In every sense. Who lived a big life. And his story is indisputably worth telling. So I will forgive the occasionally overly exuberant portrayal and tell you why you should seen this if you have any interest at all, which you should, in this subject.
Mr Sancho was born on a Spanish slave ship bound for modern day Colombia around 1729. His mother died very soon after and his father, crushed by this and the Middle Passage, took his own life after they landed. His owner sent Sancho to Greenwich in London to be the plaything of three daft sisters. The Second Duke of Montagu took a shine to the young fella, taught him to read and took him in when he escaped the sisters. He worked as butler for the Duchess and received a pension when she died. He married a West Indian woman, had seven kids and saw service again in the revived Montagu household. He was famously painted by Gainsborough, (the image that first intrigued PJ), and exchanged letters with Laurence Sterne . His writings became a key prop in the abolitionist cause and, after setting up as a greengrocer, Sancho was able to pursue a career as playwright, composer and occasional actor. Financial independence left him qualified to vote. His colourful and forthright letters were published shortly after his death in 1780.
Even if Sancho were of no historical or cultural importance you can see that this life would be cat-mint to an actor looking to create a solo show. The fact that Patterson Joseph was able to tell this particular story takes it into another league. There are now black British actors knocking it out of the park every day on the stage, and in Hollywood, and there are increasingly playwrights of colour in the UK emerging to tell their own stories. But this is something different given Sancho’s place in history, which echoes down the decades through Windrush and into the present day, and the fact that PJ was one of the first black actors to appear with the RSC in the early 1990’s even if you may know him better from his various TV roles.
The play dates from 2015 and has toured on and off since then. This was a one-off at the OT on a Sunday night with a pretty good turnout from the somewhat restricted Richmond theatre-going demographic. Given how much passion and emery PJ commits to his portrayal I am not surprised it was one night only. PJ freely admits to a hefty dose of dramatic licence in the way he has detailed the story, (is Sancho Panza really a namesake?), and kicks off with some break the ice, fourth wall pounding, shop observation of what it is to be a black actor. He never once takes his eyes off the audience. All of the audience it seemed. He has also given Sancho a soft lisp and a fine line in self-deprecation. Which means when it comes to the more harrowing episodes in Sancho’s history there is a real impact. And he packs in a lot of reference.
You never quite lose the feeling that there is an “actor” at work here and, like all one-person dramas, the need to maintain our interest can lead to a surfeit of costumes, props, movements, impressions, comedy turns, pathos and energy. But all this is deliberate and the combination of PJ’s charisma and the story more than compensates. This would be bloody brilliant as a Sunday night BBC mini-series. And I bet the lead, (at least for the older Sancho part – sorry PJ, would do it for minimum equity rates.
Here’s a quote from PJ about how he feels after bringing this story to life. “I now walk the streets of London knowing that probably 30,000 black people were walking these same streets 250 years ago. Knowing that makes me feel solid.” The politics and exhortation embedded in this 60 minute piece are plain of all to see but this is also an uplifting and entertaining piece of theatre and a committed piece of acting.
The Pittsburgh (or Century) Cycle. Ten plays written by August Wilson (above) charting the African- American experience in the US in each decade of the C20. All bar one set in the same Pittsburgh Hill district, where August Wilson grew up. In the 1920s and 1930s this district was the hub of jazz culture. By the 1980s however, as the community was left behind and the planners, unsympathetically, moved in, Pittsburgh suffered the same fate as many other inner city areas in the US. The Cycle is not strictly chronological but is often connected. There were Pulitzer Prizes for Fences and The Piano Lesson. AW was inspired by, in his own words, blues music, the writing of Argentinian Jose Luis Borges, the African-American playwright Amiri Baraka and the African-American artist Romare Bearden, (most well know for his powerful work in collage).
So far the Tourist has seen this, Fences (with Lenny Henry as lead Troy Maxson) and the NT production of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom with its A list cast led by Sharon D Clarke. And I have Two Trains Running coming up at the Royal and Derngate with the others on the bucket list. From the experiences so far this are slow-burn, emotional, painstakingly constructed dramas which carefully scrutinise characters, showing the joys, frustrations and disappointments of their everyday lives. Very specific in terms of time, place and setting, but universal in terms of message. Political with a small “p”. Measured and naturalistic.
King Hedley II certainly take its time, clocking in at near 3 1/2 hours, and starts small ending on a more melodramatic scale, almost Chekovian. All the action takes place in the back yard of Ruby’s (Martina Laird) brownhouse on Pittsburgh Hill, and silence, or any non-naturalistic trickery, is not part of the gig. So you have to want to hear these people speak. Fortunately the words Mr Wilson puts into their mouths are powerful, real and compelling. Which gives the cast here, under the direction of Nadia Fall, plenty to get their acting teeth into. Ms Fall’s first season in charge at the TRSE has been a triumph. Her second season looks like it will be a repeat. A combination of home-grown and brought in productions that celebrate diversity, are relevant and, above all, are entertaining. The house is filling up and reaching out. That’s impressive.
Anyway King Henley II was probably the pick of the crop on last year’s announcement, (though I would suggest The Village, The Unreturning and Equus, which is transferring to Trafalgar Studios and deserves your attention, all turned out to be better), on the strength of Mr Wilson’s reputation, the generous support of Mr Wilson’s widow Constanaza Romero, and the casting of Lenny Henry. As I know from Fences, Othello and The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui, our Lenny is a magnetic stage presence and packs an emotional acting punch. In some ways he is almost too big a character. However here, in the role of Elmore, he takes something of, well I hesitate to call it a back seat, but he is not the linch-pin of the action. That role belongs to Aaron Pierre who plays the eponymous title character, and he is, properly, awesome.
Mr Pierre hails from Lewisham, where he went to the local college, before getting into LAMDA. His professional debut was as Cassio in last year’s Othello which marked Sir Mark Rylance’s return to the Globe. He’s done a bit of telly as well, (he will appear in Barry Jenkins’s The Underground Railway on Amazon), but this is this first stage lead. He will be a big star no doubt. And, just to be clear, he doesn’t play for Shrewsbury Town.
King Hedley II is an ex-con who returns to his childhood home after serving seven years for murder but is having difficulty adjusting back to life. He wants to provide for wife Tonya (Cherrelle Skeete) and start a family but employment proves elusive, this being 1985 in Reagan’s America/ So he conjures up a plan with his upbeat best mate Mister (Dexter Flanders) to sell knock-off refrigerators to the local community. Once they have saved enough they will then set up a video store. The plan, you will not be surprised to learn, doesn’t come off. King Hedley and Tonya share the house with Ruby. Hedley’s mother, though the relationship between mother and son is fractured. Ruby left Hedley to pursue a singing career so that he was brought up by his aunt, whose house this was, and is angry that she has returned to claim the house after his aunt died. Stool Pigeon (Leo Wringer), who is something of a fire and brimstone prophet, lives next door and, whilst we never see her, the death of Aunt Ester (“a washer of souls”), who appears in other plays in the Cycle, hangs heavy over the action. Many of the characters here first appear in Seven Guitars the play which premiered before KHII, in 1995, which is set in the 1940’s.
The opening act is not all doom and gloom, there’s plenty of bantz, but Hedley’s anger at the cards that life has dealt him, as he slouches in his chair in the yard, fiddles with his gun and tries to plant some seeds, is palpable. Into this volatile mix comes Elmore, Lenny Henry’s character, an ex-lover of Ruby and a hustler and chancer with a natty (if you like 70’s suits) dress sense. Hedley, as we find out, has good reason to resent Elmore and tensions build.
There are several strands to the story and Mr Wilson and Ms Fall are determined to give them all a fair hearing which does mean the play drags a little before it all comes together. The ending aims at tragedy but doesn’t quite scale the heights of the Greeks or Arthur Miller. Fate, male violence, the impact of the past on the present, the crushing of hope brought on by Reaganomics, individual responsibility, all are themes which are rehearsed in some often wordy monologues. Peter McKintosh’s set is a faithful retention of the brownstone terrace but there is little therefore to distract the eye. Howard Harrison’s lighting is a treat and there are a few, though maybe not enough, musical distractions, alongside Christopher Shutt’s electronic sound design.