Brighton Year-Round 2023
Double Bill: Paul Robeson, Suzi of the Dress
Central Standard Theatre, Kansas City Theatre, Blackout Theatre Bedford
Venue: Lantern Theatre, Brighton
Festival: Brighton Year-Round
No doubting of the power of this double-bill from Kansas. The Paul Robeson is solid gold, the Suzi of the Dress, quicksilver.
Directed by Albert Welling, Set and Props by Lantern Theatre, Technical, Lighting & Sound Operator Erin Burbridge.
Till July 30th
From the Central Standard Theatre, Kansas City Theatre, aided by Blackout Theatre Bedford and here at the ACT Lantern Theatre Brighton, we’re treated to one of the most unusual double-bills I’ve ever seen. Simply put, see it on its remaining afternoon slot. 2pm on Sunday 30th.
Yoked together by being American though one dramatist is British, they share a director (writer Albert Welling, though he’s not credited), and nothing else but the space, where all technical operation as well as managerial duties is carried out singly by Erin Burbridge who deserves recognition. The casts are different.
Philip Hayes Dean Paul Robeson
Robert McNichols Jr is a baritone singer, cellist and conductor as well as actor, with a string of awards. You can tell that immediately as he inhabits the one-man play by Chicago-born actor/writer Philip Hayes Dean (1931-2014) as the eponymous Paul Robeson.
The play Paul Robeson debuted in 1978 with James Earl Jones and was made into a movie the following year. At Hayes Dean’s death it was still described as “divisive”.
Robeson was a bass-baritone, and McNichols has himself clearly arranged the singing for his higher-placed voice, though he has little chance to use the high baritonal notes he’s clearly consummate in once you hear them.
Other than that Hayes Dean and McNichols make you forget you’re not seeing the original. It’s as absorbing as that, consummately paced, using just three chairs and the occasional doffing and donning of a jacket.
McNichols tells of the early struggles of Robeson, first as a college footballer (exceptional) at Rutgers, then at the prestigious Columbia Law School (ditto) all along supported by his father and brothers.Finally, having realised he’ll never really be called to act as a lawyer -despite his pioneering studies being successfully used by young white lawyers – he lets himself be recruited by a client as an actor carrying Jesus’ cross and singing… and singing.
Eugene O’Neill immediately recruits him for The Emperor Jones just as tragically the great Black actor Charles Gibson was taking to drink. And after that he was taken on to play the European leg of Showboat. Both roles associated with Robeson, Robeson always pointed out he didn’t originate either.
There’s comic moments when he swears he’ll have nothing to do with the woman who’ll become his remarkable wife, medical student, future anthropologist and film actor Eslanda. This gag repeats at crucial turning-points where Robeson’s jumped into acting singing, and through the Showboat tour, world fame and living in England nine years, meeting royalty, aristocracy, Bernard Shaw and everyone else.
The rest is history, but not as we know it. Robeson’s struggles with Black recognition, the horrific racism of 1919 (returning Black US soldiers were burned alive and buried alive in 1919) and McNichols’ absorbing Robeson’s dignified impassioned telling is by now mesmerising. We move swiftly through details of Robeson’s success, and his increased agitation and moves towards communism.
We’re inducted into songs, but not when we think we’ll hear them. After a couple of spirituals including ‘Jacob’s Ladder’ we’re finally treated to ‘Old Man River’ way after the 1927 Showboat has gone.
And there’s a reason. We might hear “get a little drunk/and you land in jail” as Jerome Kern left it. But Robeson has repurposed the song and that line reads “show a little grit/and you’ll land in jail” far more reflective of Black American experience in the 20th century. There’s much like this in the song. ‘Joe Hill’ the song of the great activist framed and murdered by the law in 1915 because he fought for trade unions, was a favourite of Robeson and activists everywhere.
Robeson’s lightbulb moment came when he saw the suffering meted out to all minorities having visited the Soviet Union in 1936, just as Lorca was killed by the Fascists; and it was the fascists who turned Robeson more firmly into activism. He gave twopenny concerts to British workers, and forsook the aristocrats.
Being accused of Communism (he’d denied it in 1946) the Robesons lost all their work and had to sell their house. The great moment arrives when Robeson refuses the bullying of House Un-American activities in 1954, invokes the Fifth amendment of free speech and silence, and thunders out his own response. At this point McNichol has to synch with a pre-recorded voice of an actor playing the judge who’d once see him play football in 1917. Not that that helps Robeson.
He was banned from leaving the USA, even Canada which requires no passport. He sang at the border, and all the Canadians massed feet away to hear him.
McNichol takes us to the point where he’s addressing an audience somewhere around 1958, where after being stripped of most of his rights, he’s once again lauded.
McNichol is simply outstanding. The simple dignity of the storytelling, the ingenious use of three chairs as props (three balanced together the literal apex) is compelled with the carefully-placed song that gathers to the climax. McNichol makes good use of the stage but knows the gift of stillness, and is never too hectic or active. He builds climaxes, knows how to time a joke and running gag to perfection, and can turn tragic to comic on a pin. His inherent musicianship underpins his way of moving: he literally orchestrates the experience of Paul Robeson.
As one the small audience (much larger the previous night) stood to applaud this stunning one-person play, and player. No frills, virtually nothing but a man telling and singing his truth: one that endures.
Albert Welling Suzi of the Dress
In 1949 Freud’s first British disciple, Ernest Jones, followed his master and psychoanalysed Hamlet, developing his Oedipus complex into a whole book. Former RSC actor and actor/writer Albert Welling, known as a dramatist on Radio 4 and actor on films including the Succession series, has written an American comedy.
What if that happened, that suddenly a young counsellor, not yet firmed-up in her professionalism perhaps, was confronted with Hamlet, in costume and character, and tries to help him. Nicole Hall, the luckless young attractive Suzi, is confronted with full-dress Hamlet Christoph Cording replete with bare bodkin he often gestures to fall on to Suzi’s horror.
And he’s not Peter Jones as her notes state. He’s the Prince of Denmark. Though it’s not Suzi who gets names wrong after that.
Can she help this violently-impelled man sort his fixation on killing an uncle whom he claims murdered his father, who told him posthumously of the murder? And that thing about his mother. And the man he accidentally killed. Suzi has her work cut out, not least in little stars as Cording’s Dane keeps piling on the half-quotes and allusions we’re all egged one to glimpse as they vanish.
But this Hamlet is pretty au fait with what a therapist or counsellor should and shouldn’t do. And look at what happened to that last counsellor, Polonius. Stabbed through the arras. The what? Suzi doesn’t want to end up like her apparent predecessor, or what Hamlet predicts will happen to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Can she help him swerve his possibly predestined course?
Who is he anyway? Someone playing Shakespeare’s part running from the stage with a breakdown? Or has he, or Suzi herself teleported to a real Hamlet in another universe? All might be revealed or not.
This Hamlet rendering has a Marmite effect: many rollicked, one or two had seen this kind of experiment before and thought it ought to have been over in 15 minutes. An improvised couch and rough props, and a bare bodkin. And a few yellow-paged notes on a clipboard. All you need for Hamlet, perhaps ever.
Welling is canny though, and his two actors are extremely adept. Their chemistry and fluency are first-rate. Whilst Kansas-born script-writer/actor/filmmaker Hall is superb at nuance, scorn, fright, attraction and flustered call to order, Cording – also Kansas-based and describing himself as by preference a character-actor from fringe who gets pushed into romantic leads – never lets go of the Hamlet he’s given.
The script is adept at keeping the attention between switchbacks, the balance between Hamlet and Suzi – whom he keeps calling Philippa or Philomena and occasionally her actual name – fluid. Hamlet’s own capriciousness means Suzi can never really know if she can move Hamlet on, with occasional tripwires plunging him back to his bodkin, or even Suzi.
What this lacks though, and this is curious, is Hamlet’s humour. Even when Hamlet alludes to being mad he doesn’t add ”north north west” and indeed this is a Hamlet without the wince. The opportunity to turn this Hamlet into a fantastical animal, wilder than anything Stoppard refuses to imagine for him in his Rosencrantz and Guildenstern – that Hamlet staying of course fixed in-role – is passed up.
One director suggested afterwards this work seems a take on rehearsal games, and Welling’s RSC chops could easily devise this as an after-show afterpiece. Perhaps. I feel it has more potential, and of Hall’s excellent performance there can be no doubt; and of Cording’s energy, stalking Hamlet’s monomania.
Perhaps Welling’s work dictates Cording should play wholly in-role, thus less three-dimensioned to Hall’s more real if stereotypical Suzi. Or possibly Cording’s simply not using all the light and shade the script offers. With Cording’s splendid panther-pacing energy though, it seems likely he’s bounded in Welling’s nutshell, or he might be counted a prince of infinite jest.
There’s no real opportunity to go hawks and handsaws here, which is where the script perhaps relies too much on the pay-off, which you’ll have to see for yourselves. It could still deploy all that with a zany bounce off the script, perhaps unusual acting playing against it.
One exception though – Cording wittily alludes to the precise audience number in his disquisition on how wide an audience his obsession needs. Whether 500, or – we could have enjoyed more of that.
I was never bored though, enjoyed the pay-off, the final wince at the end, the slight smile playing over Suzi’s face. And what it might mean.
No doubting of the power of this double-bill from Kansas though – even if they’re ill-assorted and the comedy of the one isn’t quite the relief from the dignity of the first that we need. The Paul Robeson is solid gold, the Suzi of the Dress, quicksilver.