FringeReview UK 2016
This three-hour (Pulitzer-nominated) epic has the same creatives as when it premiered at the Public Theater, New York, with a new British cast. Jo Bonney’s direction paces this in a detailed post-Mamet fashion. Neil Patel’s straightforward design features a hut in the first and third acts that when lifted off allows the central span a war-blasted space. Parks also supplies music and lyrics performed by music director/arranger, Steven Bargonetti. Suzan-Lori Parks’ last play at the Royal Court was her Pulitzer-winning Topdog/Underdog in 2002.
Suzan-Lori Parks’ last play at the Royal Court was her Pulitzer-winning Topdog/Underdog in 2002. This three-hour (Pulitzer-nominated) epic has the same creatives as when it premiered at the Public Theater, New York, with a new British cast. Jo Bonney’s direction paces this in a way recalling Richard Nelson’s Apple Family Plays, also Public Theater, and perhaps a similar post-Mamet amplitude of language – here more evocative, less naturalistic – defines a recent strand of American drama we simply don’t have here.
Neil Patel’s straightforward design features a hut in the first and third acts that when lifted off allows the central span a war-blasted space. Parks also supplies music and lyrics memorably performed by music director/arranger, Steven Bargonetti, onstage in a smoky continuity occasionally taking centre, seguing between the acts.
Like the Apple Family, even more like August Wilson’s great ten-play Pittsburgh series (Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom recently at the NT) this is the first triad of a nine-part project. Parks has form in sequences, her 365 Days/365 Plays attests to very different techniques: aphoristic, poetic, kin to Churchill’s Love & Information. So her choice of language – sashaying in and out of silences – is protean, deliberate, suddenly sliced with detail.
Spring 1862. Steve Toussaint’s Hero arrives massively impressive on stage, with a dilemma exposing equally impressive flaws, expounded to a group including his wife Penny (there’s a clue), his conscience Homer and ‘Father’ (Leo Wringer). Master-Boss Colonel has offered him his freedom in exchange for war service against the abolitionist North. Swayed by each in turn he’s quizzed by Homer whose foot Hero was ordered to chop off for Homer’s escape attempt. Hero’s also betrayed him, Homer reveals. Previously admired, Hero’s departure’s muted.
In contrast to the flanking acts, the central one pitches a stark character triptych, world-views in agon. Pauses here stretch to the boom of far guns. Almost too much it’s magnificent on its own terms. The Colonel, John Stahl’s wheedling monster given to gangster-like bursts of sentimentality, mocks injured Union Captain Smith whom Hero divines clasps secrets of his own. When the Colonel mocks Smith and Hero forcing them to guess Hero’s price, Tom Bateman’s Smith discovers a weighty dignity. He and Hero briefly alone discover a secret sharing. Hero’s response ripples ambiguity in a crisis of shirts.
By the fall of 1863 Hero’s feared dead; this last act concertinas with a pace absent elsewhere. Escaped slaves sheltering in the old estate urge Homer to join them. Dex Lee’s talking Odyssey Dog – vanished in the first act – bounds on like a Greek messenger and in rapid Lucky-mode expounds his rediscovered master’s adventures; superb comic physicality it underlines the tread elsewhere. Nadine Marshall’s Penny expresses a gallimaufry of conflicts and her scenes with Jimmy Akingbola’s measured Homer amplifies a register for once not centred on Hero.
Greek too is a reverse-mirror of Agamemnon’s homecoming. Hero however rebrands himself Ulysses – a clever adoption of Union general Ulysses S Grant. What he’s brought with him is more astonishing; switchbacks between the three main protagonists accelerate to a surprise. Some sequel isn’t impossible.
There’s more luxury casting. Leo Wrinter’s frail majesty as ‘Father’ the Oldest Old Man, incisive Sarah Niles, Jason Pennycooke and the quicksilver warmth of Sibusiso Mamba are mostly known for larger roles yet here swell an ensemble that chimes perfectly with the writer’s and director’s pace. In three hours there’s hardly a missed beat and the title will tease and baffle in its implication long after the end. Brave visionary theatre, it doesn’t require that much from audiences to enthral.