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 The Theatreguide.London Review

ear for eye
Royal Court Theatre   Autumn 2018

debbie tucker green's new play is written in wholly righteous and justified anger. But its structure dissipates its energy rather then accumulating and focusing it, and the whole is considerably less effective than some of its best parts. 

The play is written in three distinct sections, with a brief epilogue. Part One is made up of brief scenes, alternately set in America and Britain, of black people expressing with varying degrees of resignation or rebellion the frustrations of living in a racist world. 

A recurring pattern has one or more older characters counselling patience and discretion to a ready-to-boil-over younger figure. 

Part Two is a debate between a white academic expert and a black woman (journalist? grad student? the playwright?), with her challenging his smug assumptions of superiority. 

Part Three is on film, a string of actors and non-actors reading excerpts from segregation-era American laws ('No colored barber shall serve as a barber to white women or girls') and from eighteenth and nineteenth-century West Indian slave codes ('The slave who has struck his master in the face . . . shall be punished by death') 

Part One contains some of the strongest writing. A scene of a mother explaining to her son how almost any facial expression, gesture and stance can be interpreted by police as threatening is painfully convincing, while the assertion by a proud black woman that she and her kind have been around for a long time and are not going to go away is movingly uplifting. 

But several sequences describing civil rights marches seem to place the action in the 1950s or 1960s, and the running pattern of a younger generation growing impatient with its parents' methods has a 1960s feel that weakens the section's claim to immediate relevance. 

Part Two also loses its focus and intensity as it goes along. While there is an inherent comment in the races of the two characters, it is not really the dominant element of either what they're arguing about or what is being satirised and criticised. 

They begin with the imagined case of a teenager who murdered his mother and several others, and then go on to one of America's too-frequent stories of white losers who shoot up their high school, before somehow getting to white supremacists and the KKK. 

While it is not always clear what the woman is arguing for, she is always arguing against the man's glib textbook explanations for everything and his patronising assumption that his expertise is not to be questioned. 

But while his recurring need to retreat to personal attacks on her demonstrates how badly he's losing, it is as a smug academic that he is being deflated, not as a smug white academic. 

The third section is the weakest of all. Some of the obscene legalisations of racism being catalogued here may be new to a few in the audience, but they have to be very old news to most. 

And so the surely unintended effect may very well be to make the audience more aware of how far we've come rather than how much there is yet to deal with. 

At her best, as in some of the earlier sequences, debbie tucker green writes with passion and poetic beauty than can enrage or inspire as she would wish. And, acting as her own director, she draws fully committed performances from her large cast. 

But ear for eye remains more a scattering of small moments of dramatic power than a successful whole.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review -  ear for eye - Royal Court Theatre 2018  
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