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.

Coriolanus at the Barbican Theatre review *****

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Coriolanus

Barbican Theatre, 16th and 17th November 2017

This angry looking chap is Sope Dirisu and he is playing Caius Martius ,who you might know better as Coriolanus, in the RSC’s latest production of Shakespeare’s last proper “tragedy”. This will be followed from Stratford to London by the other plays in the Rome season, Julius Caesar, Antony and Cleopatra, and the gorefest Titus Andronicus, as part of the “Rome” season. You can read all the proper reviews from the Stratford run, but, if this is anything to go by, I reckon I am in for a treat with the rest, as this was better, in my view, than those reviews let on.

Now it helps that I happen to like this play. A lot. Maybe not as much as Othello, Macbeth and Hamlet, but, whisper it, more than Lear. It is sparse, he (Coriolanus) is a flawed character, and the writing is, by Shakespeare’s sublime standards, a little lacking in poetry and lyricism. This is exacerbated by a “prose driven” production – suits me but maybe not the ¬†purists. Like Macbeth and, indeed Titus A, it tells of a hero, (or maybe anti-hero, that is why it is so clever), whose destiny is bound up with that of his country, in this case 5th century BCE Rome, the early days of the republic. Coriolanus is, like these other “warriors”, a complex and unique personality, whose vanity and inability to compromise leads to his downfall. He harbours powerful homo-erotic desires for his mortal enemy, Tullus Aufidius, and he has the mother of all mother complexes, as it were.

There is some humour, and some satire, though I get that it is a bit buried. The body count, by the standards of Shakespeare tragedy, is minimal, just one at the end. There is War though, unusually very early on, which allows fight scenes that this cast revelled in. Fight  director Terry King deserves a great deal of credit. The plot is straightforwardish, (WS once again pinched his story from Plutarch), and revolves entirely around the Big C himself. It is his connections with his family, his own people and the Volscian people of the enemy state Corioles, that defines the play and what makes it interesting for our, (and probably plenty of other), times. For the play brutally examines the exercise of political power, the relationship between classes, the limits of democracy and representation, the dangers of populism, the nature of patriotism, the business of compromise, the call of duty in both military and civil society, in addition to all the deep, Freudian, psychological stuff. Ancient Rome is fundamentally different to our world today but the issues it grapples with are uncannily similar.

Which is why, in its way, its the best “Brexit” play I have seen this year. People’s visceral reactions to what is “right” and what is “fair” and the way in which they are, or think they are, being treated by their leaders, is what lies at the heart of this play. The continuing tensions between the haves and the have-nots, the “leaders” and the “led”. As ever though, there is no black and white with big Will, as you oscillate between hating and maybe admiring Coriolanus’s actions and intentions, and you see the ways in which those around him react, Mum, wife, nemesis, tribunes, friends, soldier colleagues and substitute Father, all try to influence and manipulate him.

Now a twist of fate “permitted” me to watch the first half twice, up to Big C’s banishment. A technical issue on the first performance I saw meant a return the next day to see the rest. I confess I was so pumped up by the first half and by the cliff-hanger when Coriolanus tells Rome to go f*ck itself that I was bound to return. And the tightwad in me wasn’t going to miss a free hour and a half of this. Turns out the repeat viewing was an insight into how the interplay of text, action, acting and audience can create a very different experience. Same play, same production but different lines and words leapt out; I focussed on different characters at different times and thought about different aspects of plot and message as it evolved.

Sope Dirisu turned out to be a suitably virile military man and the camaraderie and mutual admiration between him, Charles Aitken’s ardent consul Cominius, and Ben Hall’s pragmatic general Titus Lartius, rang true. As did his hesitation with Hannah Morrish’s wispy wife Virgilia. The turning point scenes with mother Volumnia also stood out. Whether extolling the virtues of her son’s military achievements in full on patrician mode, or achingly pleading with him to curb his revenge even though she knows what this will lead to, Haydn Gwynne was magnificent in the role. Duty trumping family. The best performance of the evening. Mr Dirisu also shines in the scenes with Tullus Aufidius, but once again this as much reflects the skill of James Corrigan’s performance as the bested Volsci. It is tricky to convey the admiration, nay passion, that he feels for Coriolanus whilst still letting us know that he intends to play him to his country’s advantage when Big C turns treacherous.

It does take a bit of time for our Coriolanus to ramp up from haughty disdain to bilious disgust of the people, and the two tribunes, Sicinius Veletus and Junius Brutus, who orchestrate them. This though created a welcome ambivalence in our political sympathies. Should we side with the put-upon plebeians, hungry and overlooked by the out of touch Senate and the aristocratic Consuls, or with fearless Coriolanus, who may saved Rome from the enemy, but who sneers at the people and refuses even a pretence of the humility expected to secure their approval for his election as Consul?

Having two women play the tribunes, given Coriolanus’s conflicted relationship with the opposite sex, added an interesting dimension, and the contrast between Martina Laird’s more measured Junius and Jackie Morrison’s more provocative Sicinius was also well observed. Paul Jesson’s patient, though frustrated, Menenius, father, mentor and apologist for Coriolanus, was another fine performance.

Now as it happens Paul Jesson has a bit of form with Coriolanus having played Junius Brutus in Ralph Fiennes’ 2011 film version. This is an outstanding production, with a magnetic performance by Mr Fiennes, who also directed, a stunning cast and the uneasy backdrop of Serbia. Angus Jackson, with this modern dress production, has, perforce, created a somewhat different tone, but, I think, similarly makes the case for what I think, is a riveting play. It seems to me that there is a case for moderating Coriolanus’s “pride” and subsequent “fall” and for questioning the political “rights and wrongs” and, if that is true, Mr Jackson’s definitely direction succeeded here. A bully oozing utter contempt may lead to more powerful lead performances but can be overbearing. I liked the contrast of Mira Calix’s string and voice led score and Robert Innes Hopkins design (excepting the troublesome plinth) was coherent (it carries through the whole season).

Coriolanus a tricky, difficult, awkward play. Nonsense, as many recent productions have shown. Mind you I’ve never understood the difference between Shakespearean tragedies and comedies, so you can safely ignore me.