I love almost everything about the Young Vic – its two wonderfully well-proportioned acting spaces, which create a near-perfect rapport with the audience; the warmth of the welcome that the brilliantly revamped building (which was recently shortlisted for one of the top architecture awards) extends to the public in its foyer, bar and restaurant areas. Then there is the expansive heart of its artistic ethos, as demonstrated by its unusual and persuasive programming choices and its far-sighted schemes for budding directors. Never has a venue better deserved the Empty Space... Peter Brook Award, which was presented to the theatre last week.
Now here's another considerable consideration. With David Lan at the helm, the Young Vic has joined Nicolas Kent's admirable Tricycle Theatre as a deeply imaginative champion of international black writing and drama that examines the lives of black people from the barrier-scrapping perspective of seeing both what is distinctive about that experience and what links it to the lives of human beings as a whole.
To say that Lan was born and bred in South Africa might stir in some minds the suspicion that his advocacy of such work falls into the white-guilt-trip category. I'm not a mind-reader, but I should say, from my slight acquaintance with him, that theory is unworthy nonsense. This is a man who devoted years of his life to field research for a PhD on mediums in Zimbabwe, later published as the book Guns and Rain – work that directly fed into Max Stafford-Clark's superb relocation of Macbeth to modern Africa. It's a background that helps account, I'd guess, for Lan's sure instinct and taste where black repertoire is concerned.
And now the Young Vic alerts us to the talents of the young African American dramatist Tarell Alvin McCraney, from whom (take it from me) we are going to see a lot more. In a week that has also seen the premiere of Kwame Kwei-Armah's new play Statement of Regret at the National, I must state a personal preference for The Brothers Size.
A rather tin ear cocked to the zeitgeist, Statement of Regret, with its black think-tank setting and its mechanically engineered debating contests, inhabits a committee-room of the imagination. The Brothers Size breathes a larger air in its mythically inflected story of the troubled triangle formed when a young black man Oshooshi (Obi Abili) is released from prison and is reunited with his straight-living brother Ogun (Nyasha Hatendi), only to be shadowed by the seductive siren figure of the ambiguous Elegba (Nathaniel Martello-White).
Fielding a cast of first-rate, muscled actors, Bijan Sheibani's production is beautifully attuned to the play's technical and spiritual openness. It is set in the bayou country of Louisiana in a precisely adumbrated context of white racism and black-on-black copycat discrimination. And, at the same time, it is set within a mythic circle that is drawn in chalk on the stage at the start, just before the three actors sign up for business (so to speak) by smearing themselves in the scarlet pollen ritually cast over the acting area.
What follows has a magical speed of conveyance. The movement is gymnastic; the blocking has a diagrammatic edge; from the launch pad of spare, saltily idiomatic talk, the dialogue can levitate into lyric flight with no change of gear or drop in total credibility.
Sometimes wittily, sometimes sadly and sometimes in contradiction to what is being done, the actors deliver the play's stage directions as speech.
Yes, the ending makes too intent an assault on the tear ducts and yes, by comparison with Kwame Kwei-Armah's play, The Brothers Size does not conduct a political debate. My point, though, is that it constitutes a more profound political act – enlarging and strengthening the imagination, readying and steadying it for the kind of stand that brings about change. Statement of Regret taxis for too long on the runway of mere journalism.
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