FringeReview UK 2018
Tinuke Craig’s directs generation and the solo performance random in Alex Lowde’s set where names appear (lighting by Joshua Druatus Pharo) as the choir intones their twenty-seven names, on a turquoise backdrop screening the full extent of the Minerva space. The nine-part South African Cultural Choir sing offstage. Emma Laxton’s sound is discreetly focused and never obtrusive. Till June 2nd.
Hard on the heels of Natasha Gordon’s debut Nine Night at the National, theming celebrations of death and mourning, debbie tucker green’s starker double bill of loss features in a revival of two previously stand-alone woe:s at Chichester’s Minerva: first in her 2005 play generations. There’s differences too. Whilst random (2008) also addresses bereavement in a British/Caribbean family, that facing generations is a South African pandemic. The nine-part South African Cultural Choir who serenade before during and in the interval after generations achieves a bleak obliquity: the vanishing of generations the wrong way round, each one serenaded – with a cheery audience interaction echoing Nine Night. And it revolves around cooking.
Tinuke Craig’s swift pace leaves plenty of breathing in these two pieces. generation’s barely half an hour long yet seems to amplify time. Both works play with it, the second more explicitly, in Alex Lowde’s set where names appear (courtesy of neat lighting by Joshua Druatus Pharo) as the choir intones their twenty-seven names, on a turquoise backdrop screening the full extent of the Minerva space. It’s intimate and cleanly focused on a patch of naturalism. That naturalism shifts. The names do service, like the choir, for both dramas. Emma Laxton’s sound is as usual with her, discreetly focused and never obtrusive.
Weskerian kitchen naturalism in this rectangular Minerva space squares off a simple raised platform whereon a kitchen with working stove set up with a gas canister is fed chopped and shredded vegetables as its two pots simmer. There’s a visceral waft of spices.
It’s mesmerizingly focused so every gesture of the seven-strong cast is highlighted in a place with no shadows. That’s emblematic as well as theatrical. The vanilla and orange floor tiles and a few chairs thrust the cooker downstage and table and chairs upstage, with other chairs visited by members of the cast; Grandad in particular. It looks faintly uneasy, as if he feels he’s sitting on ghosts.
The restless forgetful Grandad, Okon Jones, both asserts his wife Nana (Cleo Sylvestre) can’t cook and he taught his elder daughter: ‘she was a bad learner’. Nan claims the sentence as hers, and continually asserts: ‘She was cookless till I coached her.’ These phrases with several others are litanised like an extension of chant. They’re become what is learned. But cooking however real, is a displacement. It’s a particular day, and the repeated phrases sound as if from someone’s fallible memory filling the gaps. We find out who that might be later on.
The very generating of cooking skills too is both subverted as men snatching female language, and transmitted, whatever the truth (you feel it’s a female truth here; Grandad displays incipient dementia).
Laurietta Essien’s confident Mama whose duetting with Derek Ezenagu’s Dad centres the current authority, badinages with husband and elders. There’s a nodal axis of her asserting her own mother’s memory, even though the latter momentarily denies it under sheer force of her husband’s repetition. There’s a reason though – another generation’s going to get the same male rewrite.
If Essien’s all assurance and ease, recalling cooking as a sexual rite (her future husband asked her mother if she could cook, then her) nevertheless you’d normally expect her to centre this drama.
tucker green refuses to let anyone do this because it’s not that kind of a play. Dad’s badinage with his elder daughter’s boyfriend, playing top dog, is benign for now. There’s a mild jostle of male insecurity in Wela Mbusi’s Boyfriend, the Mouth, the lippy confident young whelp who’s already vying for his place. Luyanda Unati Lewis-Nyawo’s Girlfriend (Older Sister) is the one whom Essien’s teaching, who knows as yet nothing. Which is of course rubbish.
This obviously isn’t about cooking though, however the language insists; it’s not even about male narratives overwriting female ones, though that should give us a clue. It’s about the way sparky Younger Sister Kudzai Sitma flits for a while, twitting everyone; then departs. It’s ‘this thing’ causing her departure. Then the Boyfriend and Girlfriend, then Mama and Dad. Nan and Grandad are left, a simple doling of food – note how Nana gives Grandad three times as much, a touching nod to the privilege of men in her generation, however much a well-fed daughter’s prized.
Generations dying backwards is what we’re only hearing about since we’re not afflicted with the same appalling pandemic of AIDS as Africa is. generations reminds us in the simple hollow grieving, the repeats and hopelessly persistent nourishment of the old, that the old are burying their children and grandchildren. A family’s been hollowed out and they’re the husks. Sylvestre and Jones draw on muted reserves of tenderness for this last scene of quiet devastation.
It’s a superb cast, led by Essien’s anchoring Mama, the seven-strong cast in itself a choir onstage – with its choruses refrains and litanic repetitions thrown back and forth like polyphonic lines; just as the choir offstage becomes another character. tucker green’s play is the more potent for never drawing attention to the specifics, or even overt grieving; just the vanishing.
random manages the opposite. It’s a specific south London narrative, related moment by explicit moment by the unnmaed young woman.
There’s now a stripped platform of white with just a wired alarm clock and a digital display echoed on the turquoise wall, various boy’s gear from weights to bicycle helmet to computer wash round the platform edges, almost invisibly. Petra Letang, prone on the stage is woken at 7.36 and relates stops to her office day – she’s just out of school, her brother’s still there, her teacher mother copes and her father’s in the bathroom and rather in denial about quite a lot.
Till around 14.10 we’re badgered and charmed by badinage, a first person narrative Letang intersperses with all her family’s and colleagues different voices. It’s a compelling pull even before as it were time suddenly stops. This was a play written after the spate of fatal stabbings in London from 2007-08, and as it’s being revived we’re in a far more deadly spiral of stabbings. The way Letang rounds her rapid-fire language to the deliberate tread of the booted authority sipping Dad’s oversweet tea pulls you into that same spiral of no-time. tucker green’s minute dissection, seen through a perceptive, grief-sharpened focus is peculiarly poignant in dealing with the mother’s initial denial. There’s complications, rather horrific ones. Though random is a little short of an hour it carries the amplitude of generations as well as its terrible velocity.
Letang’s consummate inhabiting makes you forget drama’s membranes. This seems verbatim theatre delivered raw by the original witness.
Quite how people are meant to rebuild lives is something again tackled with the unanswerable cry that the old are repeatedly burying the young. These plays were premiered apart, but seem to belong together.
It’s poignant to reflect only a few years ago tucker green questioned whether she was a dramatist at all, judging herself by what theatre seemed to offer. With such Royal Court productions as truth and reconciliation (2011), the superb hang (2015) and a profoundly affectionate… (2017) it’s good to be reminded of these two mould-breakers. One stretching a Chekhovian moment over a burial ground; the other taking a one-woman show further into tragic theatre.
There’s been a slow shift of gears towards women dramatists in major theatres but Chichester’s sliding into fourth. Last year’s The Stepmother by Githa Sowerby showed that dramatist didn’t write just one masterpiece (Rutherford and Son), but quite probably several. 2018’s been a celebration of Suffrage. In a season featuring not before time several superb women dramatists – Enid Bagnold and Charlotte Jones follow – starting with tucker green is a proud moment for Chichester.