The slow compromise of a good man is again the focus of a London play, a fascinating subject in which external circumstances as well as character and internal predisposition change an individual’s life. While C.P. Taylor’s Good, running at the Harold Pinter Theatre, examines the decline of a man who was arguably not particularly good to begin with and who stubbornly fails to see the warning signs as he slides towards Nazism, Gloria Williams takes a more decided position on good and evil in the world premiere of her play King Hamlin at the Park Theatre in which an almost inevitable decline into crime is born out of poverty, desperation and class as the protagonist becomes an all-too-aware if unwilling participant in his own destruction.
With a focus particularly on the complexities and stereotypes of black, British masculinity, the first Act of Williams’s play focuses on the creation of circumstances, a set of conditions in which a type of behaviour and reaction is born and, despite attempts at agency by the hero, he is unable to escape from it. The earliest moments of this drama seed this idea instantly as the actors playing 17-year-old Hamlin and his friends improvise for around 10-minutes before the performance begins. Williams is feeding the audience a context where power, status and aggression is typical even between friends, a jockeying for position and influence that colours their interactions, and the line between banter and ribbing can easily flip into something more combative as boys get in each other’s faces, gesture and exude an angry outrage that none of them, even the arbiter, can be sure is made up in the moment. It sets the tone for the drama to follow in which a good ‘legitimate’ boy is slowly compromised by a lack of opportunity, by peer pressure and the expectation-laden projections of others based on his race and economic situation that slowly shut down his options for the good life he wants to lead.
The play itself begins in the aftermath of a fatal stabbing among their group, a friend called Alex who is the linchpin of the boys who now leaves a power vacuum of a kind, although this is not yet a group on the edge of gang violence, only slowly moving towards it. Within this context of grief and shock, Williams adds a double sense of social redundancy in which both Hamlin and his mother are unable to find work or purpose, making it near impossible for them to pay the rent on their small flat close to a notorious Council estate in Guildford. With Mama H facing a wait of several weeks before she will receive any social benefit, Williams puts the family in a compromised position where opportunities to pay their way start to close off.
And still this is not quite enough to propel Hamlin in particular across the fuzzy dividing line between ‘good’ and ‘bad,’ and so Williams plays out an interview scene in which the young man becomes the unwitting victim of his circumstances while acutely aware of the cliches and prejudices his presence alone evokes. In trying to present the most positive version of himself, Hamlin actively tries to hide his background, adopting a persona expected by the interviewer and trying desperately to avoid giving any clues about where he lives and the assumptions it brings. But in doing so, he appears cagey, even deceptive, something that torpedoes his chance of success anyway. Williams emphasises the vicious circle in which her character is trapped regardless of his attempts to escape it.
And within this short scene, the writer looks to establish some insight into her character’s internal struggles that will prove vital to his trajectory as events play out. Hamlin is shown to actively argue with himself, stepping outside of his interview persona to weigh up the problems of being too honest and chastising himself for the mistakes he makes, his internal rage climbing to the surface and, more importantly, the position he has been put in by others presenting an insightful moment that defines his future reactions. But we are also given further circumstantial information that, of itself, doesn’t perhaps make Hamlin’s decline pre-destined but further stacks the scales against him, adding to the formation of his resentment and feeling of injustice. A chain of events from a deceased father and single mother to the lack of money to buy a laptop and the death of his friend create a pressure-cooker effect across the months of the play that push Hamlin down a path he actively tries to resist.
Structurally, Act Two is where the consequences of all of this scenario-building eventually come to fruition, taking Hamlin first to the brink and then far beyond the line where another kind of retribution awaits. Williams begins the second half of her play with a punchy and violent scene that shifts the tone quite materially, ushering in a new energy and purpose to what had been a cerebral discussion, a basic exploration between right and wrong, to something far greyer – the good man is compromised but, rather than deceiving himself about these qualities like Halder in Taylor’s work, he fully embraces the darkness that emerges. And, we notice a deliberate shift in the language Williams uses to create a masculine bombast and a greater sense of jeopardy. Here, as the gang culture takes hold, the characters – particularly wannabe leader Nic – start to talk about forming an army, setting up a rivalry with another local group headed by an unseen individual named Blades. Williams starts to drop words like ‘soldier’ and ‘warrior’ into the mix, building to a couple of pointed speeches that add fuel to the situation, first threatening Hamlin and then inspiring him.
Much of this is centred around what it means to be a man, or at least this ultra-aggresive and bristlingly violent interpretation of manliness that circles around the need to prove loyalty and fearlessness through public demonstrations of support and willingness to attack ‘enemy’ others. The result of trauma in Act Two is, then, to inflict trauma on others, channeling grief and rage against the world in general and turning it into what Hamlin thinks of as power. Like Halder’s goodness and decency, this violence-led authority is however delusional and some of the best moments in King Hamlin come from watching the title character believe he is taking control, graduating to an ascendancy over others with his application of violence. By stepping outside of the social structure that keeps rejecting and constraining him, and outside of his own personality as well, Hamlin believes he is King and, by extension, untouchable, even invincible, and it is notable that the boys in this play do not like to be touched either by their mothers or one other, making a point, even a threat, out of anyone’s attempt to try.
What is missing here is an attempt to understand or even analyse where the templates or need for this behaviour originates. Williams is creating the scenario with a stew of ingredients that take Hamlin across the line, but how and why these challenges present as violent masculinity is never really addressed. Yes, much of it is inherited and self-perpetuated – one boy does it and others follow – but what does Williams think is the root of this reaction? Is it, perhaps as Traplord so powerfully suggested earlier this year, the cartoon aggression of film and video games, play-acting soldiers come to life and allowed to get out of hand as one death escalates to a many-sided idea of revenge?
Or are there perhaps broader societal explanations as well – there is a strand of work in masculinity studies that explores concepts of stunted heroism among contemporary generations of men who have had no warlike outlet in which to ‘prove’ these characteristics of manliness as their twentieth-century predecessors had. It is a pat theory perhaps but one that could be worth unpicking in this context where boys are simulating conflict and adopting the language of war in order to resolve their powerlessness and inability to control the outcomes of their own lives either economically or socially. Williams could strengthen King Hamlin with some discussion of why gangs become self-sustaining outlets for young men seeking agency and why it is violent impulses, almost a civil war within communities, that is being provoked rather than other kinds of reaction or targets beyond their immediate neighbourhoods.
Director and Designer Lara Genovese creates an immersive feeling, filling the Park 90 studio space with graffiti-covered hoardings that instantly awaken the audience to their urban, deprived environment that contains and propels the play. Within the staging itself, Genovese creates a small living area and Hamlin’s mother’s small greenhouse where she grows sage plants – an undeveloped theme that speaks to a strand of superstition and totems that we learn little about. It is a set that is filled with character though, run down and well lived in, stuffed with the clutter of their history together but still suggesting the claustrophobia of close-quarter living in which the closeness of Hamlin and Mama H becomes an emotional if not a physical distance when Hamlin’s new life comes between them. The domestic dominates though so as the play increasingly shifts from Hamlin’s home to unspecified urban locations, the scene-setting feels less convincing in the Park’s smallest theatre, and perhaps a more representative design might have better aided the transition between these interior and exterior locations as well as Hamlin’s own character journey from family to external influences.
As Hamlin, Harris Cain has a difficult path to tread and one that isn’t quite the same gradations of change which Halder experiences in Good, even though Taylor’s play also takes a number of time leaps. Hamlin by contrast is a starker jump from resistant to conflicted to vibrating with rage which Cain does really well, particularly the latter as almost two hours of performance culminates in a pulsating monologue in which Cain exhibits a restless energy, a bravado and braggadocio that is both ferocious and tragic. The softness inside the character, an essential decency is always under the surface though in Cain’s performance that make him sympathetic and understandable throughout. There is a nice contrast with the consistent decency of Hamlin’s mother, quite an underwritten character with few dimensions whose purpose is to represent the alternative path for her son and be the voice of a conscience that plagues him throughout. Kiza Deen brings some light and shade to the role however, an anchor for Hamlin who even as he is travelling away from her, she is trying to reclaim him. It would be interesting to create more for this character, a deeper exploration of her own employment issues, why she finds salvation in plants and their meaning as well as the life she has endured as a teenage single mother that offers a feminine and maternal contrast to the pulsating masculinity offered by Hamlin’s friends.
There is a barracking in the interactions with Inaam Barwani’s Quinn and Andrew Evans’s Nic that can feel distorted and difficult to distinguish in this small room, but it captures an unvarying pitch of forceful interaction that feels unrelenting for Hamlin as one-upmanship and posturing underpins their interactions which in Act One at least makes for consistent if flat drama. In Act Two, though, Evans excels as Nic makes a ferocious play for power evolving from a childish bully showing off to an almost psychopathic crusader obsessed with becoming top dog and exerting both power and vengeance over those who cross him. The coercion that forces Hamlin to follow and then emulate him is well managed while the shyster’s knack of insisting he isn’t responsible for his own actions through shear mental will adds an interesting dimension to the performance.
It is a rather grim picture that Williams paints, of forces beyond the control of her characters pressuring them in only one direction and with a building sense of inevitability as violence begets more violence. It could go further in understanding why this rage against the system and the shutting down of opportunity manifests specifically as violence, but in what may feel like the only option, King Hamlin offers some hope of reprieve, safe in the knowledge that, unlike Taylor’s play, a good man may stay a good man even when corrupted.
King Hamlin is at the Park Theatre until 12 November with tickets from £14.50. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog
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