FringeReview UK 2021
Directed by Ola Ince, Designed by Chloe Lamford, Costume Designer Natalie Pryce, Lighting Designer Simisola Lucia Majekodunmi, Composer Renell Shaw, Sound Designer Max Perryment, Movement Director Imogen Knight, Choreographer Jordan ‘JFunk’ Franklin, Special Effects Designer Susanna Peretz, Associate Designer, Associate Director and Graphic Design Shankho Chaudhuri, Assistant Director Lelan John-Baptiste, Dialect Coach Dawn Elin-Fraser, Voice Coaches Hazel Holder, Eleanor manners, Joel Trill, Fight Director Philip d’Orleans, Production Company manager Alex Constantin, Stage Managers Constance Oak, Mica Taylor, DSM Vicky Eames, ASM Katie Stephen, Set built by Ridiculous Solutions, Pyrotechnics by Pyro Mark. Till October 23rd.
A pair of twins dance round a ripping circle of fire at the Downstairs Theatre at the Royal Court. As the spectacular opening of Aleshea Harris’ Is God Is dims to equally remarkable sets, I began to reminded of those picaresque epics from TEAM: Mission Drift at the NT Shed in 2013, and RoosevElvis, premiered at the Court in 2015. There’s that same trek to uncertainty and back.
Here though that tradition gets played with as it’s torn up. There’s definitely two on a mission, they’re not deflected. There’s a return. Harris’ peripeteia has genuine overtones of Greek tragedy with that same winding inevitability from family origin; and the same 90-minute concentration with added body count.
There’s inevitable parallels with Tarantino and US films though theatrically there’s really only Elizabethan through Caroline tragedy. The only recent dramatic parallel lies with the uncertain register of Rory Mullarkey’s plays with mass slaughter, from Wolf at the Door through Pity.
Director Ola Ince who managed to turn the ‘flagged’ Globe Romeo and Juliet into a street-theatre of violence where the lovers are almost incidental, elicits from both works an exemplary subordination of protagonists to forces that shape them. Though these wins are bolder, more in control, they’re subject to the same gods of vendetta. More, Harris by focusing on black experience and storytelling simply erases all these predictive patterns. With excoriating fury, she reinvents the rules.
The fount is Tamara Lawrence’s Racine and Adelayo Adedayo’s Anaia receiving a letter when they turn 21: She, their dead mother’s still alive, dying in hospital. Slowly of the burns she received those years back that scar Anaia on her face, Racine on her back. Down they jump from their elevated white box – Chloe Lamford’s first inset design – and visit a hospital replete with descending chapel window and a sign ‘Before God’.
Here Cecilia Noble’s monumental She, (not Ayesha but called God by her daughters) upright with a hideous burns mask slowly outlines their revenge mission. On a husband who burnt them all leaving them for dead. Noble flickers her orders, as if envenoming her innocent twins with bile. Noble brings flecks of malign wit, rasping in a low sibilance so everyone bends to listen. Memorably she describes her ‘boy lie an alligator because of what he did.’ Greek style, we don’t see that, but the words resonate through the rest of the play.
Racine’s the instant avenger, Anaia the one who goes along with it till after storyboarding film quotes – I’m reminded again of TEAM – like ‘Going West’ which descends behind the pair, we come to the first encounter. This is Ray Emmett Brown’s boppy lawyer Chuck Hall who can reveal how he got their father (Mark Manero’s Man) off. Here Racine initiates the first killing spree, with Anaia holding back wondering at her sister’s dead-eye take on their newly-discovered mother.
There’s a switch to Man’s other family a sark contrast: middle class neglected wife Vivienne Acheampong’s Angie complaining of her husband and twin sons laziness as she humps the shopping in to the yellow and white toy House on the Hill on a revolve allowing an interior dressing room.
Acheampong brings enough humour and dark knowingness that you feel she’s being a bit manipulated by Harris as she decides to take off from the family and the twins magically identify her and she becomes unsympathetic enough for the Racine to justify herself. Her sons, Rudolphe Mdlongwa’s wannabe Riley and Ernest Kingsley Jr’s self-absorbed wannabe poet Scotch naturally greet the twins as strippers sent by their father. There’s some character surprises for everyone.
Monero’s Man, lean, plausible, limber and wholly unrepentant proves a near nemesis as he happens on havoc. He’s full of sophistry – how could he have deliberately burned his babies, that was she – and other winding casuistries. Anaia springs at least two surprises – we’ve been prepared for one from the start – and the outfall again is Anaia’s character, what she did in that fire defines her, as does the next.
Refusing natural catharsis – for instance the final wrenching absolution of Orestes – whoever survives will be marked again, and has to live with how they fought the seeming implacability of male violence. With She presented in such ‘God’ terms in a chapel-like hospital, Harris places her work firmly in Bible-belt revenge territory, which in the U.S. spills happily enough to both Testaments. The picaresque, the cheerful avoidance of consequence and naturalism, in one sense removes this play from tragic theatre. There are things not explored. But what it does is exuberantly showcase the terrible.
The creative team who turn this to spectacle are too numerous to enumerate (they’re fully listed above) but beyond Ince and Lamford, Simisola Lucia’s lighting, Susanna Peretz’ effects, Max Perryment’s sound, Renell Shaw’s music, Philip d’Orleans’ fight arrangements, Pyro Mark’s pyrotechnics, Imogen Knight’s movement and. Jordan ‘JFunk’ Franklin’s choreography deserve special mention.
Like several plays this season – not simply Caryl Churchill’s What If If Only but Lucy Kirkwood’s week-old Maryland, treating of recent male violence – we’re asked to deconstruct the whole bloody gender. And about time. And this remains a stunning, preternaturally timed production.