FringeReview UK 2018
Straight from Royal Exchange Manchester too, coming to the Court straight after that run. Eclipse Theatre’s Director Dawn Walton directs. There’s a range of decisions to make about tempi, recitation and verse-speaking. Simon Kenny’s set involves strips of grassy verges the whole backdrop of scored markings lit up spookily on occasion in burgundy and violet striations by Lee Curran. Adrienne Quartly’s atmospheric sound is undistracting. Till April 7th and continuing tour.
Testament’s Black Men Walking upends everything, a trio of men who reclaim by walking their history, the entitlement to an arena previously supposed a curious whit preserve. The Peak District. As the self-appointed but very-well-informed historian Thomas (Tyrone Huggins) points out, black men were buried in Barnsley in Roman times. He unskeins ravels and bumps of history for a later hearer, a young woman. And then it’s his world that gets challenged. This teasingly interrogative, life-affirming play of eighty minutes walks you out of yourself with its choruses and refrains, even shouts underscoring the essential quietness of the shouters. Affirmations aside, this is reflective, ruminative, and you want to follow.
It’s a long walk from Royal Exchange Manchester too, coming to the Court straight after that run. Eclipse Theatre’s Director Dawn Walton’s commitment is manifest in her preface, underlined in her memorial dedication. She’s clearly shaped the way this poetic theatre develops alongside testament. There’s a range of decisions to make about tempi, recitation and verse-speaking. Simon Kenny’s set involves strips of grassy verges and stage left some old circular cut stones and a zone for exit and entrance including a transparency where actors can freeze in suspension or freefall, the whole backdrop of scored markings lit up spookily on occasion n burgundy and violet striations by Lee Curran. Otherwise it’s a pretty naturalistic-looking set unencumbered with too much verismo – for instance a game-changing snow storm. Adrienne Quartly’s atmospheric sound is undistracting.
To say its about re-assertion of identity might sound a truth tremendous but trite, but it’s anything but. It’s more a re-inscription of old marks long faded, indeed with the moss and snow and other obliterative elements that Thomas brushes away. Somehow the eldest, Thomas the shortly-retiring administrator is able to impart a solid smattering of facts without it becoming either preachy or strained. It’s what he does best: transmits intact the possibility of others reclaiming identity. Huggins invests his character with both authority and a capacity for distraction at crucial junctures, where something’s clearly not right. He’s a fallible elder, making contact with ancestral voices on the one hand, offering rational apologias as to the safety of the walk on the other. His insistence wins but lands them in potentially fatal consequences.
Trevor Laird’s Matthew the Hertfordshire GP is distracted by something else – his mobile, married to Vicky who isn’t black and whose patience with this bonding is wearing thin. She’s taken their children to her sister’s. Yet these children ill benefit from Thomas’ history; they’ve little choice A we learn, racism’s by no means past. Matthew means to visit his Jamaican aunt.
Tonderai Munyevu’s Ghanaian IT geek Richard is always offering chocolate; he still seeks approval, and this contrasting with his assertion that you’re native if you’ve lived fifteen years in one place (he’s managed twenty in Yorkshire) tells us of an essentially learned callowness rooted in his father’s apparent scorn. With three wives, he relegated the children of one mother and lavished expensive education on others.
What’s clear is Testament‘s detailing wholly different black histories, an irony not lost on the three men who relate the way the interloping Anglo-Saxons – African people were here before the Anglo-Saxons – view them as undifferentiated. It would have been good to learn more of this, but drama and a fourth character renders this impossible.
Thomas sees her first, Dorcas Sebuyange’s aerobics-focused Ayeesha on a perilous crag. Resistant to avuncular appropriation she nevertheless reluctantly integrates, hears out Thomas’ histories and precipitates an accidental split when she and Thomas decide on one way back, the others disagreeing. I between crises and recriminations we hear Ayeesha’s story. at twenty she’s seen more recent examples of racism in Barnsley and elsewhere than the others wish to believe. They hope her generation’s free of it. More about Ayeesha’s learned in one monologue than in the men’s fractured confidings.
There’s enough differentiation to make us wonder what Testament night have maanged with a longer piece, but the arc of this work isn’t tense with character conflict, so it can’t be much longer. At most a brief telegraphing of their lives like Ayesha’s – and at the start, Thomas’s – might have enriched our understanding.
If Huggins bears the central burden with engaging mixes of authority and fragility, Sebuyange’s energy and singing is impressive, and Laird’s southerner and Munyevu’s vulnerable jocularity invest these characters with wit, warmth, and a measure of distinction.
There’s a resolution and a few late epiphanies. It’s an important work, satisfying in its refusal to over-imbue a situation which needs less plot-driven conflict than to lay open its stories like a knap of stone revealing the shine.