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Posts Tagged ‘Tim Lutkin’

I was wondering why I couldn’t remember anything (except earth) about David Harrower’s first play, the premiere of which I saw twenty-two years ago, then after I saw this revival at the Donmar, I realised that it was the stage equivalent of an impressionist painting – more about the setting and atmosphere it creates than the story it tells.

We’re in medieval times, though the period and location are no more specific; rural north England, perhaps. A nameless young woman lives with Pony William, the local ploughman, who doesn’t have a lot to say and whose intimacy is confined to perfunctory and speedy sex. When she takes their grain to Gilbert Horn, the miller, for processing, the attraction seems to be more than just sexual. He’s a reader and a writer and she is interested in the world this opens up to her.

I can see why director Yael Farber was attracted to it as it suits her visual style. Designer Soutra Gilmour, with help from Tim Lutkin’s striking lighting and Isobel Waller-Bridge & Christopher Shutt’s brooding music and sound combine to create something earthy and sensuous within which we get a limited amount of narrative but a lot of atmosphere. As much as I loved the visual imagery, I did feel it was light on story. The three performances are excellent – Judith Roddy, torn between Christian Cooke as strong, silent Pony William and Matt Ryan as strong, more cerebral Gilbert Horn.

It holds your attention for an unbroken ninety minutes, its sometimes mesmerising, and it leaves you feeling you’ve travelled back to peek voyeuristically into this medieval world, but I’m not sure its the modern classic some claim.

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I am astonished that this is the UK premiere of this third Lorraine Hansbury play, unfinished when she died prematurely of cancer at 34, completed by her ex-husband, Robert Nemiroff, soon afterwards. It seems to me a masterpiece of 20th century American drama, but somehow we’ve had to wait forty years to find out – though part of me is pleased it’s waited for Yael Farber to give it such an extraordinary production.

Set in an unnamed African country, it moves between the home and hospital set up by Scandinavian missionaries and the village of the Matoseh family. Tshwmbe Matoseh has been living in Europe and visiting the US, lobbying for his country’s independence. He’s married a European and had a child with her. He returns to visit his sick father but he’s too late, except for the funeral. His brother Abioseh has stayed at home and, influenced by the missionaries, is about to become a priest, ‘one of them’. Their mixed race half-brother Eric is badly damaged by the consequences of his parentage in this society.

The colonial power is represented by Major Rice, who is trying to deal with an uprising which is escalating daily. The missionary minister is away, but his blind aged wife is at home with doctors from the hospital and a visiting American journalist, who observes and comments on events. The whites call the freedom fighters terrorists and are shocked when they learn some are in their own adopted communities.

The play looks at the situation from all angles as well as drawing parallels with civil rights in the US at the same time, in electrifying scenes between Danny Sapani as Tshembe Matoshe and Elliott Cowan as journalist Charlie Morris, two wonderfully passionate performances. In addition to commenting on colonialism, it looks at the differing attitudes of the indigenous people and the motivation of settlers, missionaries and medical staff – they appear well-meaning but they are not universally welcome, and being in the front line bear the brunt of the revolutionary anger, however benevolent and defenceless.

Yael Farber’s epic staging makes great use of the Olivier stage, often bathed in the beautiful bright light of Africa by Tim Lutkin. Soutra Gilmour’s simple impressionistic mission hospital building revolves on a sand covered stage, moving us to different parts, with the unadorned tribal home laid out stage front. A gentle soundscape by Adam Cork, wonderful music from a quartet of African Matriarchs and a silent semi-naked woman who seems omnipresent, moving slowly across the stage, all combine to create an evocative African atmosphere.

In addition to Sapani and Cowan, there is a superb, dignified performance from Sian Phillips – wonderful to see her continue to do such great work at this stage of her career. Clive Francis’ sends a shiver up your spine with a brilliant characterisation of The Major. I’ve seen Gary Beadle before, but here he’s a revelation, and unrecognisable, as Abioseh. Tunji Kasim beautifully captures the complexity of Eric, whose dead mother was very close to Madame Neilsen and whose father is shockingly revealed to us towards the end. It’s a terrific ensemble.

Like Mies Julie and The Crucible before, Yael Farber has again produced an enthralling, captivating and deeply moving production which burns an impression on you which I suspect will last a long long time. It must be seen!

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