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.
Never easy to work out what to sign up for at the Arcola Theatre since so much of quality and interest passes through the doors. So the Tourist has adopted a somewhat whimsical approach and given up worrying too much if he misses the cream of its output, However this was different. I was very taken with Al Smith’s take on Diary of a Madman at the Gate and thus more annoyed that I missed his last effort, Harrogate, at the Royal Court, So this, a revival of one of his first plays, written when he was a regular for Holby City and Eastenders, was an opportunity not to be missed.
And, whilst I cannot imagine another way of playing Peter Shaffer’s gift of a part, Adam Gillen was a memorable Mozart in the NT Amadeus from 2016. For Mr Gillen it is who plays Charlie Fairbanks the “star” of Radio. As the blurb says, “Charlie Fairbanks was born in the dead centre of the United States at the deda centre of the 20th century. Americans are going to the Moon and Charlie’s sure he’ll be the first one three. But as he shines his spotlight on the Moon, so too does it illuminate the darker side to his nation’s history. Radio is a story about memory, love and spaceships“.
A pretty fair summary. From this notion Mr Smith spins a yarn that more than holds out attention for its 80 minutes or so running time even if it only hints at a critique of modern America’s inability to live up to its Dream. Adam Gillen’s Charlie is an optimist, brought up in Kansas, though his Dad moves the family around to ensure his tourist schtick, the house at the centre of the US from which he sells flags, is maintained. His dreams of being an astronaut, fuelled by the radio and the optimism of the 1950s and the Kennedy presidency, fade as he confronts the reality of the Vietnam War, the actual Moon landings and destitution as a veteran through the Nixon and Ford years.
The intricate text meanders but always illuminates, Josh Roche’s direction is never rushed, Sophie Thomas’s set is minimal, a skein of wires in red, white and blue and a few props and Peter Small’s lighting is similarly direct in the atmospheric downstairs space in the Arcola. So everything is focussed on Mr Gillen. There is more than a whiff of Forrest Gump in Charlie but his performance commits and so persuades us of Charlie’s brand of self-conscious sincerity, whilst still sketching out the supporting characters, Mum, Dad, girlfriend and so on. This kind of close-up monologue always takes guts on the part of the actor, especially when playing an Everyman on to which the external world is projected, but AG, bar a few accent slips, is utterly convincing.
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.
Now I’ll be honest, until I started taking this theatre malarkey seriously, I had only the faintest idea of what Thornton Wilder’s most famous play, Our Town, was about. And even going in to this production at the Open Air I confess to some scepticism as to the reasons why it is so highly regarded. I am a sucker for “meta-theatre”, fiddling around with the realms of what is possible on stage and breaking all the naturalistic rules of theatre, but this still sounded a little too, well, American and homespun, and I couldn’t quite see how it would elevate itself it to something more profound. Still this is what the experts told me it would do and I, for one, choose not to ignore the experts, (especially when it comes to, for example, cardiac surgery – for, without one such expert, you wouldn’t be reading this).
Well I can report that the experts, once again, do know what they are talking about. Written in 1938 OT tells the story of the fictional American small town of Grover’s Corner in the years 1901 to 1913, (I gather the photo above is taken from the original Broadway production). The play is set in the theatre in which it is being performed, designed here by Rosie Elnile as simply a bank of temporary seats at the back of the Open Air stage, and we have a narrator in the form of the theatre’s stage manager (Laura Rodgers) who guides us through the characters and the scenes, addresses us directly, introduces specialist “speakers” and fields “questions” from the audience. With the exception of one scene the cast is in modern dress and there is minimal use of props, largely just a couple of table and chairs to symbolise the two main households, the Webb’s and the Gibbs’s, and plenty of miming.
Thornton Wilder apparently insisted that the play “should be performed without sentimentality or ponderousness–simply, dryly, and sincerely,” a request that director Ellen McDougall, AD at the Gate, sticks to with the exception of shifting the “action” from 1938 to an even more timeless today.
Act 1 centres on the daily life of the town, waking up to a normal day in 1901. We get lectures on the history and geography of the town, (one of many reasons why the swot Tourist took to the play), and we meet the main protagonists Frank Gibbs (Karl Collins), the town doctor, his wife Julia (Pandora Colin) and their two children, sporty, tearaway son George (Arthur Hughes) and younger sister Rebecca (Miriam Nyarko), Charles Webb (Tom Edden), editor of the local paper, wife Myrtle (Thusitha Jayasundera) and their bookish daughter Emily (Francesca Henry) and younger brother Wally (I think Tumo Reestang in this performance). Act II concentrates on the courtship and wedding day of Emily and George in 1904. The mood changes in Act III, in 1913, when we are taken to the cemetery outside Grover’s Corner and see who has passed in the intervening years including Emily, who returns to life to look back, regretfully, on her 12th birthday.
This is when the deep stuff about how to live life to the full when it is so short, and how we are all connected in time and place, and out into the cosmos, is let loose. You would be forgiven for thinking this might come over all schmaltzy and, trust me, the cyclical Tourist is ever alert to such manipulation. It does not though and that is where the play most confounds. It was a pretty hot day at the Open Air, and the Tourist foolishly swapped shade for view, and the matinee crowd was the usual bunch of us old and economically inactive and the reluctant school-teens. So I can’t pretend this was some massive communal epiphany. Nonetheless the messages that Thornton Wilder wraps up in his deliberately “simple” meta-play do resonate and I now understand why the play is so highly regarded and so oft performed especially in the US.
I can see how some might not want to go beyond the moral homage to a simpler, more “authentic” past, with a central love story and a sad ending, but it is also hard to avoid the way Wilder stretches, examines and undercuts this surface reading and not just through formal experimentation. I have banged on before about how American art, in its broadest sense, explored in the inter-war years the dichotomy of modern, urban America and its mythic, rural past. This seems to me to spring from the same well. There may not be an explicit nod to the darkness which was to befall Europe, from which the US largely escaped, but there are, as there were so effectively in Annie Baker’s John, ghosts from the Civil War past as well as references to the coming depopulation and the stultifying effects of conformity to home, hearth, gender roles and church.
Some of the proper reviews have a bit of a dig at the production precisely because of its fidelity to Mr Wilder’s original intention. I disagree though, as I say, not having seen it before meant there was no novelty to wear off. Ellen McDougall is not a director who fights shy of radical theatre, (she was assistant to Katie Mitchell and Marianne Elliott and her first production at the Gate, The Unknown Island was a metaphorical riot), but here, outside of the diverse 19 strong cast, the female stage manager, casual clothes and a few, well placed, choruses, as I say, she seems to play it pretty straight.
I suppose you could go all gung ho and start meta-ing the meta and conjuring up all sorts of allusions to darker times. (What is it with everyone in the theatre aching for contemporary relevance and proof that we live in dangerous times anyway. I am not saying our world today doesn’t have some Grade A wankers in positions of power but I would rather live here, now, than as a slave in C5 BCE Athens, a factory worker in C19 Manchester or a homosexual in Nazi Germany). I also accept that this might not, unusually, be a work that benefits from the Open Air setting, though Act III might be enhanced by the twilight of an evening show.
But I see it worked for Billers in the Guardian and that’s good enough for me. I was already a big fan of Laura Rodgers who stood out in Pressure, Rules for Living, Winter Solstice and Tipping the Velvet and I was also struck by Francesca Henry who appeared in another production directed by Ellen McDougall, The Wolves. Karl Collins and Arthur Hughes also managed to create character beyond imitation. This is though, an ensemble piece, and the whole cast stepped up.
(P.S. I was never going to be unaffected by the wedding of a young Gibbs, some three weeks after the real thing).
For those of you who, understandably, don’t have the time or inclination to filter through the vast opportunity set that is the London “subsidised” theatre sector and just want to spend your hard-earned coin on a proven theatrical production then the next few months is shaping up nicely. The following all have the Tourist’s cast iron guarantee seal of approval and, more importantly that of proper critics and audiences, so you can buy without fear of disappointment. Of course you must first check the subject is up your Strasse but the execution, in all the below cases, is top notch.
Sweat at the Gielgud Theatre. Lynn Nottage’s brilliant dissection of what’s wrong in America. Decently discounted for performances in the next couple of weeks.
The Lehman Trilogy at the Piccadilly Theatre. Three peerless actors in a history of the Lehman dynasty. Though here you have to pay up for the rest of the run.
Touching the Void at the Duke of York’s Theatre. Theatrical magic telling the story of Joe Simpson’s agonising descent down a mountain. A little bit of discounting for the beginning of the run in November.
Captain Corelli’s Mandolin at the Harold Pinter Theatre. More theatrical magic condensing Louis de Bernieres sprawling novel about love and war. Again there are some offers which make this very good value for money.
Equus at the Trafalgar Studios. A mesmerising production of Peter Shaffer’s classic play about a young man wth an unhealthy obsession with horses and his psychologist saviour.
The Son at the Duke of York’s Theatre. Florian Zeller’s gripping new play about a depressed teen. Marginal discounting in August.
Rosmersholm at the Duke of York’s. Though be sure you like Ibsen. A rare West End bargain.
However topping all of this is the just announced transfer of the Young Vic Death of a Salesman to the Piccadilly Theatre from end October. Of course you could keep an eye out for returns on the day for the sold out run at the Young Vic or better still you could have listened to the Tourist months ago when he said this would be the play of the year. Because it is. But whatever you do don’t miss it.
And one final polite request before I tell you why it is so good. Bag some tickets to see A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Bridge Theatre. Just seen it. Nick Hytner has only gone and done it again. Reimaging Shakespeare for our world, with a twist. I don’t care if you are “bored” by Shakespeare. You won’t be here. I am going to go again.
Oh and if I had to pick one sure fire winner from what’s coming up it would be Robert Icke’s version of The Doctor at the Almeida with Juliet Stevenson.
Right finally back to The Death of a Salesman. Now, as any fool knows, this is Arthur Miller’s masterpiece. It is Mr TFP’s favourite play. Wise man. Mrs TFP now knows why. As does the SO who, unusually, would fully endorse my 5* opinion. And this production shows the play off to maximum effect.
The gap between what is real and what Willy Loman imagines, between what Willy, and his two sons, Biff and Happy, think they can be and what they are is, a metaphor for the souring of the American Dream, that repeatedly and methodically bashes you over the head until it, as it should, hurts. But the personal tragedy should also be, as it is here, a massive emotional rush, as we see Willy fall apart, Linda Loman watching on, with a love that still cannot save him, Biff finally voicing his own pain and Happy trying to pretend his way out of his own disappointments. To elevate this into the drama stratosphere however, a director and creative team have to completely embrace Miller’s formal innovation. Being the stuff that goes on in Willy’s head. After all the original title for the play was The Inside of His Head. Especially all the memories from the past in Willy’s long first act reverie after he returns from his failed sales trip, (for which dreaming, personally, I blame the cheese sandwich).
Which Marianne Elliott and Miranda Cornwell, with the not inconsiderable assistance of Anna Fleischle’s set design, the barest, illuminated floating outlines of the Loman house, the Wagner office, Boston hotel room, Frank’s Chop House, the accompanying lighting design of Aideen Malone, Carolyn Downing’s sound and, especially, the composition of Femi Temowo. Miller specified a flute: this production delivers much, much more musically. Anna Fleischle writes bravely in the programme of how her own father’s suicide in Munich when she was in her 20’s and he, like Willy, in his 5o’s, informed her intention to capture the space between the real and the illusory.
With sound, light and held poses delineating the flashbacks in Willy’s head, visible to those around him as he mumbles t0 the past, ad especially his big brother Uncle Ben, the next thing we need is a sympathetic Willy. This we get from Wendell Pierce. Now not being a big consumer of US TV drama, (and never having made it beyond series 1 of The Wire – still on the bucket list), and never, as far as I can work out, having seen any of his film performances, the Tourist had no real expectation about Mr Pierce going in. If I am honest I would say I marginally preferred the last Willy I saw, Don Warrington, in the Royal Exchange production directed by Sarah Frankcom. Mr Warrington is a big man, his Willy prouder (as it were), crushed by the disappointment off his life. Wendell Pierce by contrast, in his slightly too big suit, straining to hear the voices from the past, still clutching at imagined opportunities to turn his, or Biff’s, or Happy’s, lives towards success, clinging to the idea of his being “well liked”, is a far more vulnerable Willy, perhaps closer to the text.
His portrayal leaves substantial scope for Sharon D Clarke to show us just how “good” a person Linda is. Whether acting or singing, Ms Grant is a force of nature. It’s what she holds back you see. When she finally lets rip at the boys after they abandon Willy at the restaurant, banging the table as she commands, “attention must be paid”, and then, when she asks Willy for forgiveness for not being able to cry at the bare funeral, I was in bits. Still am writing this.
And, as if that wasn’t enough there is Arinze Kene’s Biff. Now, as anyone who has seen Mr Kene on stage will know, this young man is prodigiously talented. As both a performer, and as he showed with Misty, as a writer. And Biff Loman might just be the greatest “supporting” actor male role in C20 theatre. As Arinze Kene shows here. When he finally rounds on Willy, for the witnessed sin with the Woman, I confess I was bloody scared. I am guessing that for Mr Kene some of Biff’s situation is personal. I gather that the 14 year old Arinze first got the acting bug when he stumbled into a workshop at the Arcola by accident. Yet another reason to thank the Arcola and Mehmet Ergen
There are multiple reasons why casting the Loman’s as an African-American family in pre-Civil Rights America works, but the cumulative frustration that crushes Biff as he realises that racism lies behind his disappointments, is one of the most powerful. All done with context and one line left hanging, (for that is the only liberty Marianne Elliot has taken with the text). How anyone will ever revert to a white Loman family after this, (and a near similar thesis for the Royal Exchange production), stumps me. Even the story of Ben making his fortune in Africa in a diamond mine takes on a whole new perspective.
Which just leaves Martins Imhangbe to complete the family quartet. Now Happy, as a role, can suffer against the dazzling characterisations of his Dad, Mum and Bro. Not here though. Mr Imhangbe, who impressed in An Adventure at the Bush, nailed Happy’s swagger, confidence and conciliatory optimism, whilst still recognising his own ambition is slowly being diminished.
The rest of the cast doesn’t disappoint when they are called upon in their key scenes: Trevor Cooper’s Charley when he lends money to an ungrateful Willy, now taking on an even sharper edge; Joseph Mydell imperiously striding off stage and up the aisle as Willy calls after the “ghost” of Ben; Ian Bonar as Bernard, now the lawyer, interrogating Willy as to why Biff flunked summer school, and then again as the very faintly disparaging waiter; Matthew Seadon-Young as the visibly flinching Howard when an humiliated Willy begs him for a desk job and all he wants to do is show off his new fangled tape recorder; Maggie Service as the indelicate, and white, Woman; and Jennifer Saayang and Nenda Neurer as the playful Miss Forsythe and her friend Letta.
Like I say. Tourist’s favourite play so far this year. As he thought it would be. Don’t miss it.
What was that all about? Benjamin Britten and WH Auden’s “choral operetta” which premiered in 1941 when they were in America, is a fable, structured like a Broadway musical, with an array of musical styles, (though BB’s hand is always clear), sometimes camp, sometimes deadly serious with a libretto which, allegorically and sometimes explicitly, takes aim, and occasionally misses, at a whole host of, then, fashionable artistic targets. It got panned, was shelved by Britten until his very last days in 1976 when he revised it for a performance at the Aldeburgh Festival, (which sadly he didn’t witness), and it has gradually clawed its way back into the repertoire.
I saw it decades ago when my head was nowhere near capable of making sense of it and I had intended to see it at Wilton’s Music Hall where this ENO production fist surfaced, but, you know, stuff. Anyway the reviews persuaded me and, by and large, I am glad I listened. I can’t imagine a production that could better convince me of its peculiar merits, and the themes started to resonate, but I still confess I am not convinced by Britten and Auden’s motives. They were a clever couple of lads no doubt, (go see Alan Bennett’s The Habit of Art to be persuaded), and this must have looked good on paper, particularly in the intellectual climate of the time, but it does feel like they over-egged it, and, for something that is supposed to be performed by semi-professional groups, it doesn’t seem to have a clear audience home.
Paul Bunyan, and his faithful companion Babe the Blue Ox, is a staple of American folklore, who apparently came out of the oral storytelling tradition of American loggers. He is, just run with this will you, a giant lumberjack, who, along with his trusty crew, set off across the US to perform feats of superhuman strength and carve out the landscapes of the US. Or maybe he wasn’t. Perhaps he was dreamed up by an adman, William B. Laughead, to promote the Red River Lumber Company in 1916, whose exploits then became a staple of kids books. Or maybe not. Maybe he was an actual lumberjack in Canada by the name of Fabian Fournier. Who knows? Whatever his origin he has been the subject of all manner of creative endeavour ever since and I gather the US is littered with oversized statues of the fella.
Already you can see why a couple of posh gay Brits, in love with America and its meaning, and keen to give something to the country in which they have, temporarily, taken refuge, might see the potential in such a subject. You might not know the Paul Bunyan legend but their hosts, across society, certainly did. The homegrown art of the US in the C19, (after all the portraiture of the late C18 and early C19 in common with Europe), was focussed on nature, the immensity of the landscape, and especially on man’s conquest of nature. This was fundamental in creating a powerful new identity for the young nation. The Hudson River School, pioneered by Thomas Cole, led the way. I knew f*ck all about this until I, with no great intent, saw the recent exhibition at the National Gallery of Cole’s work and specifically his allegory The Course of Empire. Very interesting.
Now you may wonder what a massive lumberjack, (here I have to ask you to listen to the Human League’s Empire State Human – wry banality is a sadly rare quality in pop music’s lyric history), and his blue ox might have to do with this. Well its springs from the same well. The creation of America though internal colonisation. Both good and bad. Now sticking with art history by the time we get to the 1930s, (BB and Peter Pears arrived in 1939 just after WHA and Christopher Isherwood), US art was torn in four ways as far as I can see. A more or less folksy nostalgia for America’s rural past and founding myths, or something far more critical which recognised the damage that had been done to the heartland by the Depression and Dustbowl. Or even something which stood, ironically, in both camps, with Grant Wood being the most powerful exponent. Then there was art which celebrated, or lamented, the march of US capitalism and power and the impact of technology on the city. As the America After the Fall exhibition, this time courtesy of the knowledgeable people at the Royal Academy (and elsewhere) and America’s Cool Modernism at the Ashmolean amply demonstrated the 1930’s, for those of us who like paint, figurativism and context, this was a fertile period and stateside.
Will you please get to the point Tourist? Well, the point is that Paul Bunyan the operetta represents the same optimism and pessimism, the celebration and subversion of the rural, mythic pas,t and the way the change to the urban would potentially upset it, that American pictorial art was exploring. And not just pictorial art. Take Our Town by Thornton Wilder in theatre from 1938, in film, Stagecoach and Modern Times in there very different ways, and art music, notably Aaron Copland, who Britten befriended and whose musical influence is also clear in Paul Bunyan. (As it happens Copland was a mentor to one Leonard Bernstein who left his own indelible mark on US musical culture after the war, and an early champion of Charles Ives who was exploring the very territory I am describing, the clash of past and present, some thee decades earlier).
Now musical theatre in 1930s US was a serious business. By which I mean that the government, specifically with its Federal Theatre Project in drama, stood firmly behind cultural revitalisation to match the economic recovery underpinned by the New Deal, and that some musicals even offered a deeper social and political message. Take Porgy and Bess at the high art end of the spectrum. BB and WHA had form back home when it came to a political message with their documentary collaborations and song cycles such as On This Island and the under-rated Our Hunting Fathers.
And at the end of Paul Bunyan, in the final Litany, they lay it on thick with the paean to the individualism and acceptance they see in America and the psalm chants of the animal’s petition in the preceding Christmas Party scene. It may be idealistic, even naive, but it is, especially in this production, undeniably effective.
So there you have it. My take on what it’s all about. No f*cking use whatsoever. So you could profitably enjoy PB without agonising about its messages and context and just as a story with some, this being BB, wonderful tunes. A story about some old trees who get warned by three geese that they will be in big trouble when the moon turns blue for that is when PB is born. A narrator, well three to be exact, tell of PB’s early life before we join him and Babe in the forest with his team of Swedish lumberjacks, a pair of culinarily challenged chefs, a bookkeeper, Johnny Inkslinger, and assorted cats and dogs (yep they sing). PB goes off to fetch his daughter Tiny but the crew gets unruly whilst he is away and a bloke called Slim turns up. PB returns, offers some of the lumberjacks the option of farming, the leader of the Swedes, Hel Helson, talks to all sorts of animals, before being egged on by his Scandi mates to pick a fight with PB, which he, unsurprisingly loses. Tiny and Slim fall in love and Helming realises the error of his ways. Christmas Eve. Slim and Tiny and Slim are to marry, Hel is off to Washington to join the Administration and Johnny is going to Hollywood.
I mean all fairly routine no? OK maybe not. It is as bonkers as it sounds and BB takes full advantage by chucking his take on all manner of musical genres, folksongs, ballads, blues, county & western, hymns, Broadway, cabaret, even ad jingles into the pot, and WHA lets rip with his precise poetry. knowing irony and unexpected vernacular, (Scandinavia rhymed with behaviour).
Even if doesn’t all quite add up it isn’t for the want of trying from the ENO players and chorus under James Henshaw, the cast, designer Camilla Clarke and, especially, director Jamie Manton. Whilst the execution was undeniably as serious as if this were, say Wozzeck at the Coliseum, everyone seemed to be enjoying themselves so eventually, despite my reservations, it just seemed easier to go with the flow. And, I figured, maybe this “plot” was no dafter than the gods and monsters of the early Baroque.
For all the pastiche the score is bursting with BB’s melodic gift and ear-catching invention. He even offers a test of what was to come decades later with a hint of the singular scales of Balinese gamelan. And there is, in the choral and instrumental passages, even some “serious” opera to savour.
The Ally Pally theatre offers a beautiful, but voluminous, space so, given the transfer from the intimate surroundings of Wilton’s I was a bit concerned that this might, like the Headlong Richard III, get a bit swallowed up. Not in the slightest. Ensemble on a platform at stage rear, another platform for our three narrators, Claire Mitcher, Rebecca Stockland and Susanna Tudor Thomas, (when they are off-duty from being geese of course), projection stage, wheelie bins, blue Smeg fridges symbolising ox, constant motion, dance, costume designs John Waters would have embraced for his films. All presided over by a giant neon blue PB – did I mention we don’t actually see Paul Bunyan – never mind. We do hear him though booming out in the mellifluous shape of none other than Simon Russell Beale. And the chorus makes full use of the aisles, slips and rear, of the auditorium.
Which, when you have the mighty presence and voice of New Zealand based Samoan baritone Benson Wilson on your shoulder, turns out to be a hell of thing. Mr Wilson, who also plays farmer John Shears, was the winner of this years Kathleen Ferrier Award. I must say I was much taken with the big fella. I have never head an operatic voice up that close. More fool me. At somewhat lesser proximity I was also taken with Elgan Llyr Thomas as Inkslinger and Rowan Pierce as Tiny. But honestly this whole ensemble was just another reason why I prefer the ENO home grown talent to the ROH fly ins.
So there you have it. BB went on to bigger and better things, (and fell out big time with Auden), though this work, for all the funs and games, shows why no-one should have been surprised when, four years later, and back in Blighty, BB pitched up with Peter Grimes putting us back on the operatic compositional map 250 years since Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas. Don’t feel too sorry for clever clogs Auden. He went on to write the libretto for Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress.