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Posts Tagged ‘Aaron Pierre’

August Wilson was one of the greats of 20th century American drama, though he’s not as well known or as produced internationally as Arthur Miller, Tennessee Williams or Eugene O’Neill. His great achievement was a cycle of ten plays, each set in a different decade of the 20th century, all in Pittsburgh’s Hill District where he was brought up, with characters in some plays being referenced in others, documenting 100 years of the African American experience. We’ve seen all bar one here, though revivals after their UK premiere’s have been rare. Seventeen years after it was first seen at the Tricycle, this ninth play (in period, rather than writing), set in the Reagan’s America in the 80’s, gets a superb revival at the Theatre Royal Stratford East.

King Hedley II is home from prison, where he served seven years. He lives at home with his mum Ruby, with whom he has a fractious relationship, and his wife Tonya. He has a seventeen-year-old daughter whom he hardly ever sees. He’s struggling to navigate life as an ex-con, selling knocked-off fridges with his best friend Mister to raise money to set up a video store. They try to speed up the fund-raising with a bigger crime. He’s keen to have a child with Tonya, but she doesn’t like the world it would be born into. Ruby’s old flame, smooth hustler Elmore, walks back into their lives and ghosts from the past emerge, propelling the play to its tragic conclusion. Peter McKintosh has built two full-size houses, evocative of the poor Hill District neighbourhood, whilst providing an intimate playing area in the back yards of the houses.

I was impressed by newcomer Aaron Pierre in Othello at Shakespeare’s Globe last year, but his performance as King Hedley is on another level altogether; deeply emotional and passionate with an extraordinary charismatic presence. Martina Laird is terrific as Ruby, a nuanced characterisation that conveys the complexity of her relationships with her son and Elmore. This is Lenny Henry’s fifth role since his late career extension into stage acting, and he continues to impress. Elmore brings a lightness to what is one of the darker plays of the cycle, and Henry is well suited to this. Dexter Flanders as Mister and Cherrelle Skeete as Tonya both make excellent contributions, and the cast is completed by a fine performance from Leo Wringer as the eccentric neighbour Stool Pigeon, who hoards newspapers to record history and makes prophetic contributions like a Greek chorus.

It’s a bit too long at 3.5 hours, but Wilson’s dialogue and a set of riveting performances just about keep you in their grip in Nadia Fall’s superb production. It’s such a timeless piece, covering issues just as relevant and urgent today, and Stratford East is a great home for a work like this – an auspicious contribution to kick off the next phase in the life of ‘the people’s theatre’. As I left, I looked up at Joan Littlewood’s statue and she seemed to have a smile of approval on her face!

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For Mark Rylance’s return to Shakespeare’s Globe, as Iago, he’s paired with American actor Andre Holland as Othello, in a pared-down production by his wife, and the Globe’s former Director of Music, Claire van Kampen, and it’s good to report its success.

With just twelve actors, running at a little over 2.5 hours, there are cuts in both lines and roles, some doubling up and two actresses play male roles, but none of these changes seem to damage Shakespeare’s tragedy. If anything, by concentrating on the six main characters the story has more focus. Holland is a fine Othello, with his accent further emphasising the character’s difference. Rylance shows us a multi-faceted Iago, with touches of flippancy and humour, often speaking and moving around quickly, with makes him seem even more villainous. Emilia, too, gains in significance. It has more pace, without damaging the intimate scenes. Jonathan Fensom’s design concentrates on the costumes, which are excellent, so the performances can breathe in a largely unadorned space.

Holland and Rylance make a fine pairing, but there are other great performances too. Sheila Atim’s superb Emilia is particularly good in the final scene where she realises the role her husband has played in her mistresses demise, and she closes the show singing beautifully. Jessica Warbeck as Desdemona handles her emotional roller-coaster well, and has great chemistry with her husband. Aaron Pierre is a passionate Cassio, a professional stage debut no less. The characterisation of Roderigo is unusual, highly strung and effete, but it made him more interesting, and Steffan Donnelly played him very well.

After the audience ruined my evening at The Two Noble Kinsmen recently, I said that this might be my last visit to Shakespeare’s Globe. The theatre gods must have been listening, as last night’s audience was respectful and rapt, with moments where you couldn’t hear a pin drop, erupting in appreciation at the end. This was indeed a fine night at the Globe.

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