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 The Theatreguide.London Review

King Hedley II
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.

African-American dramatist 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 Elmore.

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 breath away.

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.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review - King Hedley II - Theatre Royal Stratford East  2019
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