The Theatreguide.London Review
Theatre Royal Stratford East Summer 2019
(Just to get it out of the
way, the main character of August Wilson's play is not royalty; his first
name, like his father's, is King. His best friend is named Mister.)
This is a great flawed play.
Its greatness comes through
despite its flaws, but let's just address the major flaw first. King
Hedley II is three-and-a-half hours long, and has no need to be.
August Wilson famously saw play writing as process, and repeatedly had
successive drafts of his plays staged in workshops and preliminary
productions as he worked on them, on the way to their final texts.
And while the results, in
such plays as Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, Fences and The Piano Lesson, are
frequently brilliant, there isn't a play among them that wouldn't have
benefited from one more rewrite.
In the case of King Hedley
II, trimming away thirty or forty minutes could only have helped make what
is great about the play shine even more brightly.
An almost plotless look at
the lives of a half-dozen urban African-Americans in the 1980s, King
Hedley II captures the experience of those who live in the narrow
no-man's-land between respectability and criminality.
King and Mister have
admirable plans to open a small business of their own, but are not above
using crime to raise the money. King dreams of wife and family, but he
killed a man in the past and went to prison for it, as did the older man
King woos Tonya while Elmore
woos King's mother Ruby, but both women have had too much experience of
men like this to avoid some scepticism and hardness.
And so it is a play about
yearning for more and better while being unable to keep from limiting or
sabotaging yourself. And both the playwright and the uniformly admirable
cast of this new production capture as much of this as the ticking clock
and waning audience endurance can allow.
In a performance that moves
repeatedly between tightly checked emotion and explosions of passion,
Aaron Pierre conveys how dangerous – especially to his own higher hopes –
King can be, while also giving him a recurring minor key of sadness, as if
the man somehow sensed failure from the start.
Lenny Henry captures all the
charm and twinkle that make Elmore a successful gambler and ladies' man,
and also the gravity of one who has seen too much to be too optimistic.
Martina Laird's Ruby and Cherrelle Skeete's Tonya are the same woman a
generation apart – hopeful, romantic, fun-loving but of necessity guarded
and afraid of expecting too much.
Director Nadia Fall deserves
credit for guiding her cast to such nuanced characterisations. But she
must also be blamed for the production's glacial pacing that makes it seem
even longer than its three-plus hours.
Scenes open and close with
long, slow fade-ins and fade-outs, and passionate exchanges that would be
both dramatic and believable if played with step-on-each-other's-lines
speed are too measured and polite.
But oh, every half-hour or so
August Wilson displays his mastery of a kind of stage poetry, particularly
through the striving of almost inarticulate characters, that takes your
Both Elmore and King are
given monologues in which they explain what drove them to their killings,
how it actually felt to do it, and how the act has affected their lives
since, in scenes of absolute nakedness for the characters (and challenges
met and mastered for the actors).
And then both say or do
something that shows that for all the lessons learned they really can't
change who they are – creating moments that bear comparison to the perfect
model of such tragic irony, Eugene O'Neill's Long Days Journey Into Night.
Earlier in the play King's
dreams of fatherhood and family are counterpointed with Tonya's resistance
to bringing a child into such a closed-ended existence – 'I ain't raising
a kid to have somebody shoot him.' - and each character's struggles to say
what they feel create a unique and overpowering eloquence.
Moments like that really are
worth sitting though some of the slower sections for.
Indeed, the chance of encountering moments like that are what we go to the theatre for.
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