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.

The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui at the Donmar Warehouse review ****

the-resistible

The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui

Donmar Warehouse, 18th May 2017

I see a lot of theatre now. Which means I read a lot of press reviews. Which is about the only time I ever step out of my Guardian reading, liberal, metropolitan elite cocoon. And that means reading reviews in the Daily Telegraph (because they often offer insight) and, when I just can’t resist it and assuming no-one is looking, the Daily Mail and Daily Express. (Why are all the hate rags called Daily – is it to remind staff and readers of the material fact of diurnality – if I were them I would be very wary of such scientific consensus).

Now I wagered to myself that in the satirical play about the rise of Hitler in 1930’s Germany (I know there is more to it but we will get to that once I have had my rant) by the Marxist playwright and guiding light of Epic Theatre, and proponent of Verfremdungseffekt, the still astounding Bertolt Brecht, that we might get some references to a certain orange POTUS. And that we might get a hint of a political message maybe even delivered direct to audience. And maybe God forbid a bit of audience interaction.

And I wagered further to myself when the Donmar announced this (with Bruce Norris as the adaptor – a man unlikely to be a scripting a Midsomer Murders episode any time soon), that the right wing rags wouldn’t be able to lay off with hysterical “beware of lefty creatives shoe-horning in references to poor defenceless Donnie” and “why oh why do these creatives have to distract us from the sacred text by involving the audience”. And I hoped it would be properly potty-mouthed as that still seems to get these people in a lather.

Well they, the rags, didn’t disappoint, and actually more of them than just the usual suspects. They really are a humourless bunch. It’s Brecht. We, the audience, are supposed to be bashed over the head with the message, both the direct historical satire and the generality of the warning. And we might find it funny. As we did. Whilst we have a good time. As we did.

Or maybe the DM and its ilk would be happier with a hot line straight to the Supreme Leader so they could denounce any of this degenerate stuff before it took root. Or maybe we should have some-one appointed to check this is all OK for us to see. Y’know just to be sure. I mean no-one wants faceless, unelected bureaucrats telling us what to do. But at least this would mean we could take back control and give the majority the strong and stable theatre that they crave. I mean right now, if you walk the streets of the West End, it is awash with subversive, pinko musicals and you risk some actorly type of indeterminate gender or, worse still, an American film actor, dragging you in to the theatre for a sing-song.

It was all so much better in the 1950s eh, Empire, no dusky types and the Lord Chancellor could help these luvvies see the error of their ways before they they could put on their so-called entertainments and thereby brainwash 27 of their Hampstead dwelling friends and colleagues (on a good night). Or better still back to the 1930’s eh, when any play critical of our Nazi friends could be refused a license. You know when the Daily Mail was firmly on the side of the righteous.

For the avoidance of doubt I am taking the p*ss here as I know that some of the silent majority that live in perpetual fear of us liberal, foreign-looking types may have a slim grasp of irony. Still you know what I mean. Or have I been too crude. Like Brecht and the key protagonists here, adaptor Bruce Norris, and director Simon Evans.

Anyway the play’s the thing. And in this case it was, by and large, a very enjoyable, energetic and thought-provoking thing. As I understand it Brecht was keen to create drama out of his gangster story as well as use the Verfremdungseffekt distancing effects to ram home the satire. I think that such drama did shine through with maybe just a little easing of the pace through scenes 11, 12 and 13, the murders of Roma and Dullfeet and I still think the Shakespearean references Brecht uses to augment the epic are sometimes more distracting than illuminating. I would also strongly recommend a bit of boning up on the rise of Hitler beforehand. The programme does an excellent summary of the events that each of the 15 scenes are satirising.

With the Donmar space done up at the outset to evoke a 1930s Chicago speak-easy, with the audience ranged around, a boisterous cast chatting to audience on entry, a wide variety of musical interjections, a narrator (with the obligatory swinging microphone) tasked with delivering a running commentary laced Marxist economic analysis and the coercion of audience members (who might now envy us up in the cheap seats), we also got the required “stepping away” from the story so that we could again examine how and why history takes this course, then, now, and, no doubt, in future.

All involved are to be congratulated notably Mr Evans and, especially for me, Mr Norris. Of his plays, I have only seen Clybourne Park, which I thoroughly enjoyed, (and I have never seen the play that provoked it, A Raisin in the Sun by Lorraine Hansberry, which I dearly wish to put right), back I hope more of them cross the pond. Of the cast my particular favourites were Giles Terera as a vicious Ernesto Roma and Lucy Ellinson as a hyper Emanuele Giri.

Oh and some bloke called Sir Lenny Henry. When you are very close to the top of the “National Treasure” pile you can do what you like, when you like, and I guess how you like. This is not naturalistic theatre but there were a couple of times when Sir Len’s AU had the whole place sh*tting itself at his barely controlled aggression. I tell you it was a relief when cuddly Sir Len ambled back on at the curtain call. Amidst all the comedy stuff his portrayal personified a damaged narcissist who pushes at boundaries, ostensibly manipulated by those who think they “control” him, and finds too few, through omission or commission, are prepared to resist. And that’s why the heavy handed contemporary parallels are not to be carped at but embraced in my book. Subtlety and allusion have their theatrical place but so does praxis.

They are amazingly a handful of tickets left. Nab one and see where, and if, you stand.