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FringeReview UK 2018

ear for eye

Royal Court Theatre

Genre: Contemporary, Drama, New Writing, Short Plays, Theatre

Venue: Royal Court Jerwood Theatre Downstairs


Low Down

debbie tucker green herself directs ear for eye at the Royal Court Downstairs. Merie Hensel’s sparse staging diffused in Paule Constable’s careful lighting and sound by Christopher Shutt that catches sparse explosions. A purple gauzy cube descends over the centre stage. Till November 24th.


In purple haze a masterpiece is struggling to be let out. Though it’s only twenty months since debbie tucker green’s last play a profoundly affectionate… {noun} also at the Royal Court, this new play has been preceded by a superb revival of two short earlier works at Chichester: generations (2005) and random (2008). It’s fascinating to see the increasing velocity, ellipses and sheer intensity tucker green delivers now in ear for eye.


It’s worth tracing it for a moment. generations for instance is a South African farewell symphony as the youngest die first of AIDS, leaving only the old. random’s a monologue by the sister of a randomly killed teenager. But they’re detailed and realist (generations features cooking). tucker green is stripping away theatrical recognition instead of starting that way. It’s no less remarkable for being so excoriatingly thorough.


Whilst hang (2015) for instance was relatively realist, though set in the future, the peripherally-staged, literally edgy a profoundly affectionate… {noun} can now be seen as marking a transition to what we have here. Both plays examine the consequences of family. Most of ear for eye marks a new pitch, a relentless confrontation with racism, family, community, education and lived experience though language hitting the sound barrier. Not loud. Fast.


ear for eye which tucker green directs herself features a cast of sixteen in twelve scenes in the first part, a series of six in the second featuring the same two actors; a film in the third involving white members of the public, and an epilogue.


The clue’s in Merie Hensel’s sparse staging diffused in Paule Constable’s careful lighting and sound by Christopher Shutt that catches sparse explosions to a kind of Aarvo Part melodic pattern, but for the most part words themselves create a sonic density save the film in part three. A purple gauzy cube descends over the centre stage Downstairs. Figures are shadowed within it. Through a fog. As the tenth scene makes clear, it’s tear gas.


The cast sit on chairs as various actors foreground a scene and dissolve. tucker green ranges freely across British and U.S, experience. A lose-lose confrontation between Sarah Quist’s Mother and her Son Jamal Ajala has her challenge him to strike a non-confrontational pose, something the police won’t beat him up for. Everything fails her test, silence, the most passive ‘cagey’ and ‘looking at the floor’. ‘We didn’t raise you to look at no floor Son’. A young black man can’t even breathe.


In an era of Black Lives Matter, it’s British and US, experiences tucker green anatomizes, never prescriptively, extracting the essence of feeling by eviscerating details. It works to remove the oppressor from the dialogue, as words tumble over in a palimpsest, leaving an accretion of witness purified in simple repeats. Sometimes it’s concrete: ‘you want the slice… I want the fuckin’ pie.’


This is the conclusion of the longest relationship. Tosin Cole’s and Nicholas Pinnock’s young and adult US males share a teacher/pupil conformation over four scenes (four, seven, nine, twelve) to anchor the rest. Their perennial hot-blooded versus temperate dialogue patterns out throughout these twelve scenes. The older can’t reach the younger, repeat phrases, non-specific, non-directed find direction out through an accretion of keywords. It’s mesmerising.


There’s some superb acting. In Scene Five scene Two Friends cautious Seroca Davis (Friend 1) and out-there friend 2 Shaniqua Okwok circle each other warily after the exuberance of Friend 2’s witness wears off. What’s great about tucker green is you simply don’t end sometimes anywhere near where you start. Friend 2 might be accused of virtue-signalling, and if she’s at the forefront it’s only because others fell back her cautious, judged Friend suggests, with her repeated ‘I’m happy for you’ edged with resentment. It seems like guilt. Okwok’s sheer energy and delivery during the first half, powering her through afterwards is mesmerising, and Davis pushes back. It’s the most powerful single scene in a memorable night.


You see where tucker green’s sympathies lie, but she balances rage at injustice with respect for those who’ve rather not see children suffer what they have.


There’s fine work too from the family of Anita Reynolds, George Eggay and again Ajal as a UK family coming to terms; and a US one – Quist, Faz Singhateh and Hayden McLean again similarly pushing against each other.


But an outstanding scene comes with the tenth scene where US Young Woman Kayla Meikle lectures on chemistry. It’s long and detailed witness of that burning in mouth and throat. ‘It’s a motherfucker.’ ‘Tear gas.’ The next scene’s almost as powerful: has Eric Kofi Abrefa arrested as a young Londoner for even opening his mouth as ‘talking aggressive’ where silence is punishable and humiliation a jab to provoke.


Demetri Goritsas and Lashana Lynch power through six scenes, cutting in and out in a perfection of tucker green’s mode in this play. Goritsas plays a white academic-cum-analyst. Arrogant. belittling he blandly patronises and interrupts Lynch’s researcher witness. Her role’s not defined but continually the oppressive condescension and speed of sneer heightens and occludes the whole discourse. It’s set on a revolve, the only time it happens here: a kind of Huit-Clos La Ronde. Goritsas cuts Lynch more and more as she nudges at the truth he’s almost determined she won’t utter.


You might think the way Goritsas hedges so aggressively, it’s about a black man who goes berserk. It’s white killers at yet another high school killing. If black, they’d be pathologized as black men. White, their actions are defensively explained as early traumas – despite the sheer normality they spring from. In other words it’s culture and nature, neither of which is permitted discourse.


The third section asks white members of the public to recite (if US) Jim Crow laws and if UK, British slave laws a film with lozenges of faces against black, often simultaneous. It’s a barbaric reminder of still-recent white savagery and should be shown everywhere.


Vital as this is, it breaks the live flow. In the recent Notes From the Field in the same space last June, it’s integrated with it; but the historical subject matter renders that impossible. The epilogue tries to pick up after this. ‘Give me one reason to not’ as Meikle challenges. It’s a hanging question.


There’s fine work from the other actors too, Michelle Greenidge as a UK woman, and similarly Angela Wynter.


tucker green herself pathologizes the very act of speaking as black is interpreted as ‘other’; accent or the most innocent stance is immediately filtered as aggressive.


But for the film one can see this huge edifice thriving as itself and spinning small scenes all over. At two hours fifteen straight through it’s demanding but not a drama piece to break in two. To say ear for eye should be seen in schools is no back-handed compliment. It’s a necessary landmark and stays vital. Its title suggests we should all be listening for our commonality, not looking for difference. It’s a memorable place to start.