King Hedley II at the Theatre Royal Stratford East review ****

King Hedley II

Theatre Royal Stratford East, 6th June 2019

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.

Macbeth at the Barbican Theatre review ***

Macbeth

Barbican Theatre, 15th November 2018

Is this a dagger I see before me … well maybe more of a kitchen knife …

It is pretty tightly plotted (at least if you pare it down). It is quick by comparison to a lot of the Bard – half the length of Hamlet, though that always needs a few nips and tucks – in part perhaps because Thomas Middleton adapted the text that has come down to us. It wastes no time at all in getting going – if anything it is a bit too abrupt at the start I reckon. Other than Macbeth and his lady wife most of the characters don’t get much air time to reveal themselves. It’s language is direct, often shockingly so. It is eminently quotable. There is no welter of arcane classical references. Most interested people know it or know of it (it’s a GCSE set text after all). The themes are easily defined and understood – ambition and patriotism, moral disorder and inversion, violence begetting violence, childlessness and legacy, gender roles and masculinity, the suppression of feeling and equivocation, the supernatural.

It might be built on an edifice of contemporary (when written) conventions, verse speaking, soliloquies, quibbles, audience asides, witches, ghosts, a dumb show, severed heads, but it is the supernatural that gives plenty of scope for coups de theatre. It may also have been intended to massage a royal ego, the patron of the company that first performed it, Jimmy I (of England, No 6 of Scotland) being an expert in the magic field with his best-seller Demonology, and coming just after the failed Roman Catholic plot to blow him up. Yet the supernatural also works on our imagination, (as it works on the power couple), always a good idea in a play, which, together with big Will’s acute psychological insight, and repetitive language – blood, blood and more blood, time, darkness, man – explains why it is so popular.

So why then is it apparently now so difficult to get right? Search me though if I take this somewhat disappointing version, alongside the similarly underwhelming recent NT production, (and plenty more in the last decade), the problem might lie in trying to hang too much on the play. No problem with a clear overarching creative vision but keep it simple. Don’t add all sorts of frills – there are enough interpretative and visual choices to be made from the text itself. Make sure the two leads nail the verse. No mumbling. Ensure they can explain their motivations – remember they are travelling in opposite directions, from normative revulsion to nihilistic emptiness in the case of Macbeth and vice versa for the Lady. The other characters can play it straight. Duncan is a symbol of kingship, Banquo matters because he doesn’t fall for all that weird sister sh*t. (And he can scare us later). The Porter is there to offer ironic commentary, warn against those who say one thing and do another, and, here in this production, very successfully mind the time. Everyone else is pretty much plot collateral.

It works best when we the audience are dragged into the couple’s nightmare. Small space, simple staging, like the landmark Dench/McKellen/Nunn RSC version. Or the Walter/Sher/Doran apparently, which kicked off in darkness. The recent Ninagawa version, though it is different, worked because the Samurai backdrop leant contextual clarity and the age of the couple a desperate poignancy.  The 2015 Justin Kurzel film, if you can forgive the accents, also has a clear aesthetic and some very smart interpretative choices. You can add your own to the list.

In this version however, director Deborah Findlay, seems to have focussed on the details of the visual, and on the “horror” to the exclusion of the themes. Some of this works, notably Michael Hodgson’s Geordie Porter, always present, tapping his watch, chalking up the body count, hoovering incessantly, disturbing in his ordinariness, as well as the digital clock countdown, even if it is a big of a cliche, which links to the theme of time passing. Niamh Cusack as Lady Macbeth, clawing and pawing, also has the measure of most of her key lines and David Acton’s Duncan, whilst a little fruity, is what you expect from a man born (rather than compelled) to rule. However Christopher Eccleston, whilst capturing Macbeth’s military bearing, doesn’t, for me, vary the verse sufficiently, such that he comes across as insufficiently tortured by events. The same is true of the Edward Bennett’s Macduff who comes across as more geography teacher than grief stricken revenger. Mr Bennett is an outstanding Shakespearean, especially in comedy, but he looked lost here. Rafael Sowole’s hefty Banquo was more convincing, especially as ghost. 

Having the witches played by three girls, dressed in red, Don’t Look Now/Shining style and signifying blood, is initially striking but the novelty soon palls. The jump cut fizzing/flickering lighting from Lizzie Powell, and the “spine-chilling” score from Rupert Cross and sound design of Christopher Shutt leans a little heavily towards the cinematic. Fly Davies’ set, with de rigeur upper level, accommodates the interpretation but doesn’t really wow or command the front of the vast Barbican stage. 

Having said all this the production doesn’t drag, it squeezes out a few laughs, not all intended, and its pinball of ideas craves attention. Maybe I should try some of the other current London Macbeth’s, the NYT at the Garrick, or the Michelle Terry/ Paul Ready at the Sam Wanamaker (if it wasn’t so bloody uncomfortable, and more problematically, sold out). Or maybe I’ll just wait. Something wicked will this come again soon.