Tag Archives: American History

Angels in America: Perestroika – National Theatre

So, at the end of Part One we left the characters of Angels in America on the cusp of new opportunities and in Perestroika playwright Tony Kushner explores the consequences of their choices in what becomes a sprawling journey through the identity politics of 80s America. First performed a year after Millennium Approaches, Perestroika is both more elaborate and in some ways a more substantial theatrical experience than its predecessor which is increasingly apparent in the National Theatre’s new production.

Running at well over 4 hours in previews with both parts combined being a near 8-hour commitment, this is a significant ask for an audience. Yet, intimidating as that may be, fluid direction means that scenes flow smoothly into one another and even with the first two acts being a substantial 90 minutes each Perestroika flies by, almost more easily than part one. A long show is always a risk, with the fear that actorly indulgence takes precedence over audience comfort, but for once with Angels in America it is a risk that pays off handsomely giving the viewer the chance to see something with an epic sweep that takes in issues of national and personal identity, religion and politics, while examining a set of distinct characters in satisfying detail.

If you haven’t seen part one then there will be some minor spoilers ahead but Perestroika begins exactly where Millennium Approaches left off, as an Angel crashes through the ceiling of Prior Walter’s bedroom and warns him that God has abandoned heaven, and much of what follows for Prior is a mixture of hallucinations and intrusions into real life as he copes with the fallout from his AIDs diagnosis and the end of his relationship with Louis. But things get more complicated when The Angel makes him a reluctant prophet who must stop mankind from moving, the only thing that can save heaven.

Meanwhile Louis is now in a relationship with Joe but struggles to overcome the guilt he feels for abandoning Prior and seeks an opportunity to meet face to face. Now in his first homosexual relationship, Joe becomes quickly and deeply attached to Louis but as faith and work come between them, Joe begins to crave the simplicity and stability he had with wife Harper who finds herself stuck working with her mother-in-law in a Mormon Visitors’ centre. And over in the hospital, vicious lawyer Roy uses his influence to secure a wonder-drug but he declines rapidly, and as his health fails he’s given a chance to see life and death as it really is.

Focusing heavily on Prior, Part Two is about restitution and the acceptance of self which allows each of the characters to find some kind of peace with themselves. Although not without incident and a complex journey for all, it feels more intimate than Part One and asks more direct questions about the quality of the life each person wants to live, while still touching on those big picture concepts of nationhood and faith. This strikes more of a chord partly because the audience already knows the characters quite well and becomes more invested in their trajectory, but also there is a sense of joy which runs through this second production that make Kushner’s message both engaging and genuinely life affirming.

One of the main reasons for that is because the plot of Perestroika also contains more large-scale hallucinatory episodes which give the National a chance to display its showmanship as bizarre flights of fancy create an engaging spectacle for the audience. Director Marianne Elliott’s War Horse experience brings a skilled integration of puppetry into representing Prior’s Angel, as the huge tatty wings are operated independently by a small team, while the Angel herself, played by Amanda Lawrence, is depicted as a shabby and possibly dangerous presence. The combined design of Finn Caldwell’s puppets and Nicky Gillibrand’s costume reinforce the idea of heaven gone to ruin in the absence of God, while there is something of the harpy about The Angel which make sense of Prior’s concerns.

This idea of magical realism is given a grubby façade, so later when Prior is given a choice between the fate of the Angels and that of man, it happens in a bleak sci-fi heaven rather than the fluffy white clouds we’re used to, while a spectacular diorama about a Mormon journey at the Visitors’ Centre inserts Joe into another of Prior and Harper’s joint hallucinations. It’s a brilliant creation, perfectly capturing dummies in a scene so familiar to old-fashioned museums, and were just a bit staid, while reiterating ideas about the different faces people wear in public and the excising of ordinary women from religious history. The scale and imagination displayed, and the way puppetry has been seamlessly woven into the production are a real high point of Perestroika and as scenes become increasingly crazy, there’s real fun to be had in just watching the show take shape in unexpected ways.

While Ian McNeil’s set felt too pedestrian in Millennium Approaches, the removal of the three revolves in Perestroika means the action flows much more smoothly and helps its long run time pass quickly. Scenes merge effortlessly, as hospitals, houses, parks and other realms easily give way to one another, allowing the audience to be swept between opposite places without confusion. McNeil outlines some scenes in bright boxes of neon light which create some memorable stage pictures, while a series of stage hands move sets into position dressed as dark crawling creatures adding to the idea that not only is disease raging unseen through the community but that lives are being controlled by bigger, possibly more nefarious, forces.

Like Part One, the characterisation is distinct and brought vividly to life by a talented cast. Again, Andrew Garfield is exemplary as Prior in what is certainly one of his best performances and probably one to watch for next year’s award ceremonies. In this production, Prior moves on from his initial anguish to discover greater inner reserves, coping independently with his condition while Garfield gives him an unexpected strength when he finally comes face-to-face with Louis again. In a wide-ranging performance, Garfield is hilarious as Prior faces the absurdity of The Angel and plays the prophet as a Norma Desmond-like-figure, but still he finds great sensitivity in a burgeoning relationship with Joe’s mother Hannah (Susan Brown) and in the hope that grows out of his sufferings.

Nathan Lane’s Roy is the big surprise in Perestroika drawing the audience into his performance and eliciting considerable sympathy for his destruction. Confined mostly to a hospital bed throughout, his fear and loneliness are palpable, and while he was a terrible person the reduction of all that scheming, manoeuvring and grasping for power to nothing is something Lane makes genuinely pitiable. Particularly enjoyable in this production is Roy’s belligerent relationship with his nurse Belize who being both black and openly gay are a challenge to Roy’s views. Yet Nathan Stewart-Jarrett weaves carefully between Belize’s duty of care as a nurse, wanting to help his patient, and sardonic attacks on Roy’s nonsense beliefs. With perfect comic timing, these scenes are among the best and most hilarious in this show.

Similarly, excellent is Susan Brown whose small role as Joe’s mother becomes much more fundamental here as she crosses paths with Prior and, having rejected her own son’s sexuality, is drawn into the life of the young man she takes to the hospital, developing a tender affection for him that demonstrates her re-education in the big city. Denise Gough’s Harper has less stage time in Part Two but, like Prior, she develops a an inner steel and independence that makes her ultimate quest for freedom from her unsuccessful marriage and from her fantasy world convincing, with the audience willing her to find a happier life.

With Perestroika performed a little less often than Millennium Approaches in the run-up to press night, it’s not quite as polished as it will be. With that in mind, Russell Tovey and James McArdle as Joe and Louis will find greater depth in their characters which should come as the run progresses and as they perform the full show a few more times. Tovey is extremely good in the early sections as Joe becomes clingy and certain he’s in love after only 3 weeks, but has more to give as the relationship sours and he is left alone, while McArdle captures the speed of Louis’s wordy delivery, his barrier against the world, but, as with Part One, has to connect more with the way in which his guilt and grief lead him to a greater understanding of himself.

Taken together, this two-part production of Angels in America is a considerable triumph for the National Theatre in what is a memorable production. It successfully combines a huge scope that confronts big philosophical concepts with the small-scale story of a group of inter-connected New Yorkers dealing with a major health crisis in uncertain times. It will mature as the run continues allowing the performances to grow and expand, and whether you connect more to the political angst of Millennium Approaches, or, like me, the bonkers fantasy of Perestroika, this is 7.5 hours of epic theatre that will leave a lasting impression. And even 25 years on its message is one we still need to hear, tolerance, openness and understanding are the most important thing society can offer, whoever you are and wherever you come from. As Prior discovers, ultimately life is all we have and we must cling to it.

Angels in America is at The National Theatre until 19th August with both parts running in repertory with some two-play days. Tickets are mostly sold out but returns frequently appear on the National website, but tickets are also available via Friday Rush and a weekly ballot for £20 run by Delta. NT Live screenings will also take place from 20 July


Angels in America: Millennium Approaches – National Theatre

Angels in America - National Theatre

Concepts of individual or national identity are comprised of many different layers and aspects, each of which we’re mostly unaware of day-to-day. But in a year that asked countries all over Europe and the USA to consider what they value and who they want to be, the notion of what defines us and the kind of society we want to live in has revealed deep divisions, ones that show that however open, tolerant and welcoming we might have thought we were as nation, under the surface individual prejudices and fear are still a powerful driver. There is no better time, then, to revive Tony Kushner’s landmark two-part drama Angels in America that while nominally about AIDS and homosexuality in the 1980s, has all kinds of contemporary points to make about concepts of identity and the social, religious and political influences that make up who we are.

Angels in America is something of a cultural phenomenon and when first premiered in the early 1990s, it forced not just a shake-up of attitudes to homosexuality but also to the way theatre could be used to tell difficult truths about how people were really living. The National Theatre’s original production remains a powerful memory for those who saw it, and such is its appeal that the decision to make a revival the centrepiece of the current season ensured it sold out rapidly – faster than Glastonbury apparently. The timing of Marianne Elliott’s new version, playing in repertory until June, fits our current social and political uncertainties and for a confident National Theatre buoyed by a run of successful productions, the revisit feels just right.

Kushner’s masterpiece divides into two separate plays, the first of which, Millennium Approaches (Perestroika will be reviewed next week) introduces the audience to three sets of characters living in New York whose lives are separately affected by AIDS and homosexuality, before slowly becoming entangled in each other’s stories. Joe (Russell Tovey) is a hard-working, clean-cut young lawyer and a committed Mormon, looking after his troubled wife Harper (Denise Gough) who cannot leave the house. Joe struggles to come to terms with his burgeoning homosexuality, challenged by his faith as his certainty about the world is tested by corrupting influences working with lawyer Roy Cohn (Nathan Lane). In the second narrative strand, Roy is an abusive powerful lawyer with many important friends who discovers he has AIDS. Refusing to associate himself with the powerless in society, Roy denies the truth, even to himself and pretends its liver cancer so he can retain his influence, while Louis (James McArdle), who also works in a law firm, struggles to come to terms with his boyfriend’s AIDS diagnosis abandoning Prior (Andrew Garfield) to his fate. While Louis’s guilt emerges through a series of political rants at his outsider status as a homosexual Jew, Prior suffers alone, his physical and emotional distress leading to a series of powerful hallucinations as something significant approaches.

One of the reasons Angels in America has made such a mark is not just its exposure of the human experience of AIDS and the fear it provoked in sufferers and their families, but also its much wider examination of American identity comprised of various strands of religious faith, social status, regional and city life, personal influence, control and power, and it’s no coincidence that it begins with a monologue about the hopeful arrival of immigrants to New York escaping persecution for a better life. Just what being an American means in a city full of people from all kinds of places is something that feels very pertinent and is explored in Marianne Elliott’s new production.

For a play with big themes, it is also a very intimate story of three sets of characters, and Elliott in the large Lyttelton space, has chosen to create three mini-revolving stages which serve as the separate apartments and offices so, at first, even when characters appear in each other’s narratives, it’s clear this is not their space. For the first of the three acts in Millennium Approaches, a series of grey booths, designed by Ian MacNeil, rotate to reveal a scene before another replaces them. It does make the action in this early part a little bit sticky as the slightly cumbersome rotations slow down the pace and means, for the most part, no more than a third of the stage is in use – although increasingly characters from other scenes remain in place on stage in the dark.

But in acts two and three, while the rotation remains, scenes are gradually played across one another reflecting the way in which the lives of the characters are being increasingly drawn together, which then adds pace and flow to the action, allowing the audience to become more deeply involved. This works especially well in a layered section as events in Joe and Harper’s marriage come to a crisis point at the same time as Louis and Prior’s relationship. As the couples argue, the protagonists are shown across one another, with one seemingly standing in the opposite scene to reflect the similarity of experience for the heterosexual and homosexual pair, with each leaving behind the weaker member to forge something for themselves. It’s a device that works extremely effectively here and though used sparingly, it emphasises the more lacklustre silos of act one.

It’s a play that contains a number of dream sequences and these can be quite tricky to reproduce on stage, either looking clunky or out of kilter with the rest of the action. However, Elliott’s production manages these with aplomb, using the renowned Paule Constable’s coloured lighting design to give a sense of fantasy that becomes enjoyably elaborate as the production progresses. Using these markers, it’s always clear to the audience what’s real and what isn’t without having to awkwardly signpost it or distracting from the more naturalistic style of the rest of the production. The design team seems to have gone for an 80s meets 2017 aesthetic overall, and while it hinders the flow in the first hour, the design increasingly supports the action leaving plenty of room to expand in the more hallucination-heavy Part Two: Perestroika.

With a wonderfully surprising and extremely memorable interpretation, Andrew Garfield leads the performances with an astonishing take on Prior Walter, who reveals the appearance of his first lesion early in the play to his boyfriend. Prior is an effeminate gay man and former Drag Queen, who despite his frail physique has considerably greater inner strength than any other character in the play. The perfect contrast to the weaker Louis, Garfield avoids camp stereotypes and delivers a sensitive and incredibly moving performance as someone facing an unknown struggle with resilience, but also dealing with a cruel abandonment by the person he trusted most.

This combination of bodily deterioration and emotional ravaging is very moving and Garfield, better known for his action hero roles in Spiderman and Hacksaw Ridge, is incredibly skilled at managing the transition between Prior’s fear of impending death and the more comedic moments of his fantasy sequences. Garfield’s interpretation is certainly something people will talk about when they remember this production and with Part 2 focusing more on his character it bodes well for the next edition.

By contrast James McArdle’s Louis doesn’t feel as though he’s quite settled into the character yet and, while he goes for the laugh, at several points he seems to underpower crucial insights. It is a complex role that has to balance the idea of personal liberation and needs – one of Kushner’s key themes in these plays – with societal expectations of doing the right thing in regards to others. Louis cannot cope with Prior’s condition, the illness terrifies him and he flees, so the rest of the Part One is about him dealing with the sense of guilt his actions create and how his attempt to bury his head in the sand with new lovers and political rants is really a manifestation of the guilt that plagues him continually. And all of this is mixed in with an outsider status which comes from his Jewish roots and his homosexuality that continue to trouble him. Yet McArdle is still on the surface of some of these facets, throwing away references to the things he’s done, there’s humour and doubt but not quite enough self-loathing as there could be, which would give the performance a deeper connection to the ideas of Louis running from something that drives his story through the show.

By contrast, Joe is running to something, a new life, the one he should have had all along, and to a liberating concept of self-realisation. In what is a very contained performance by Russell Tovey, Joe’s struggles with the various external forces pressing him to change becomes increasingly compelling as the story unfolds. He rarely erupts but when he does it feels significant, while always retaining an overarching sense of Joe’s decency. Tovey elicits considerable sympathy for Joe who works hard but wrestles with the increasing instability of his wife, which becomes a burden he must ‘walk off’ each night, and the sense of duty instilled by his Mormon faith which he cannot overcome. Crucially Tovey shows us that pressure from his boss Roy to act unethically becomes a turning point for Joe whose inner life beings to emerge as he confronts his homosexuality. An offered risk leads to self-understanding, which sets-up considerably possibilities for Part Two.

Denise Gough as Harper appears largely in acts one and two, confined to her home by fear, buoyed along by various pills and unable to control elaborate hallucinations – one of which she even shares with Prior. While Gough could easily have replicated her recent award-winning turn as a drug and alcohol addicted celebrity in the National’s People, Places and Things, here she goes for something considerably more subtle, a woman trapped in what borders on an arranged marriage, unnerved by the modern world and heading willingly into her happier fantasy life. She cowers frequently in darkened rooms while her husband is out but appears lighter in the dreams that give her a freedom she cannot find in the real world.

Finally, formally uniting both sets of characters, Nathan Lane takes on the role of venal lawyer Roy who refuses to think of himself as part of the masses, and prides himself on the influence his powerful friends afford him. There is a sense of immortality and superiority which run through Lane’s excellent performance, and while Roy is pragmatic enough to know what’s really happening to him, he also takes refuge in fantasies, but ones he creates in the real world. He is a vicious character, behaving unethically to retain his sense of control, crushing his enemies and using his power without regret to retain his association with the right sets. Lane shows us a man steeped in corruption and without remorse, but blind to his own fragility. It’s not quite sympathy he evokes, but Lane creates a sadness that only the audience can see his naivety and the suppression of self that has created such a monster, and like Garfield when Lane is on stage Millennium Approaches really takes flight.

It’s a long play at over three hours, but in Elliott’s assured hands the action zips by in three hour-long sections. And while there are a few duff notes, not least the slightly awkward gender-swapped supporting roles as the female actors unsuccessfully become men, this feels like a worthy tribute to Kushner’s play and to the enduring memory of the original production. Whether you remember that first UK staging or come to it for the first time this year, Angels in America feels hugely relevant as we all try to figure out who we want to be. Millennium Approaches has set things up beautifully, so come back next week to see if Perestroika gives these characters the send-off they deserve.

Angels in America is at The National Theatre until 19th August with both parts running in repertory with some two-play days. Tickets are mostly sold out but returns frequently appear on the National website, but tickets are also available via Friday Rush and a weekly ballot for £20 run by Delta. NT Live screenings will also take place from 20 July.


Jackie and the New Art of the Biopic

jackie-film

The biopic remains one of Hollywood’s most enduring genres. Fitted with expected ideas of heroism and triumph over adversity, the chance to play one of history’s most important figures is often irresistible for an actor and whether dressed-up in period costume or shedding light on more recent times the biopic reinforces the centrality of individuals in shaping particular events. In the last few years, however, several directors have sought a fresh approach, moving away from the traditional biopic model of birth > hardship > greatness > death > immortality, to something considerably more complex and time-limited, exploring the fallibility of their subject and the cost of their determination.

In Jackie Pablo Larrain joins this new wave of biopic directors with his multi-Oscar nominated tale of America’s most famous First Lady, Jacqueline Kennedy which examines the week following the assassination of her husband. Cutting back and forth between various days, we’re shown the fractured and uncertain period that led to President Kennedy’s funeral, watching as Jackie sees her husband murdered next to her – an act that in a second took her from most important woman in America to powerless private citizen – making plans to leave the White House with her children and taking control of the Kennedy legacy with an elaborate funeral procession and an interview with a leading journalist, though none of this takes place in order.

Watching Jackie as a concept, there are striking similarities with Danny Boyle’s 2015 Steve Jobs which, although not a major hit at the box office, was highly critically acclaimed and will come to be regarded as something of a modern masterpiece so adept was its shake-up of the genre. Biopics have long been about the lead actor having an opportunity to bid for award glory, and while the setting can be period-perfect, there’s not always that much meat on the secondary characters or exciting directorial elements to distract from the leading role.

But Steve Jobs was very different, not just in limiting its focus to three product launches but utilising a more theatrical approach to character and inserting the lead into a series of semi-recurring duologues with the fully-fleshed out people he had been close to. Character flaws were writ large, not swept under the carpet, as he bombarded and bulldozed his way through people’s objections and needs, and at no point do you think the character of Steve Jobs (Michael Fassbender) presented in this film was any kind of hero as a traditional biopic would try to paint him. But what you do understand is that unpleasant though that was these particular traits were a fundamental precursor to his business success that came with a personal cost. You could hate him, most of the people he interacts with in the film don’t like him very much, but they admired him nonetheless.

Larrain has achieved a similar dynamic with Jackie as Natalie Portman’s character strives to create and defend a mythology in the hours and days after the assassination. It’s a film that also has much in common with Peter Landesman’s 2013 film Parkland which used a number of similar techniques to cover exactly the same period but followed the doctors, Secret Service agents and ordinary people of Dallas, including the man that captured the famous footage of the shooting, in the week after the assassination. A companion piece to Parkland then, we first see Jackie as the nervous but sweet Mrs Kennedy hosting a documentary tour around the White House on television, introducing the American people to the furnishings and historic artefacts she has taken some trouble, and great expense, to restore. Beneath the sugary resolve there is steel however and Portman excels at portraying a woman shocked and overcome by grief but still able to take the necessary steps to preserve their three year image as fairy-tale leaders. This is not the sweet fashion horse we’ve come to know but someone who is aware she has a tiny window of opportunity to create the Camelot myth and preserve her husband’s legacy amidst the White House treasures, before she and her family are unceremoniously turfed out.

As with the presentation of Steve Jobs, Jackie herself is highly imperfect and while there are tender moments as she breaks the news to her children, washes blood from her hair, is comforted by her brother-in-law Bobby (Peter Sarsgaard) or discusses her two lost children with her priest (a brilliant John Hurt in one of his final performances), she is also capable of incredible calculation at the most surprising moments. In one key scene, arriving back in Washington, her attendees offer to help her change but Jackie insists on stepping off the plane to meet the journalists and crowds, as well as walking back into the White House still wearing the splattered Chanel suit from Dallas, with her husband’s blood thickly smeared across the skirt from holding his dying head in her lap.

In her scenes with The Journalist, an excellent Billy Crudup, a week later she is the epitome of rehearsed calm and poise, but still slightly deadened from the shock. Yet she’s still playing-the-game, giving him morsels of juicy gossip and then refusing to let him use them; she wants him to know she knows the truth about her husband’s adultery and dodgy friends, but she chose to be somebody important and his philandering was just the cost of that. Portman and Larrain have cleverly detached Jackie from the years and layers of JFK’s own personality, death and conspiracy theories, to give her life and purpose of her own, not just the politician’s wife, but a woman who eventually breaks down in private, drinking, smoking (which The Journalist is not allowed to report) and saying goodbye to all the dresses and occasions she’d known as First Lady. Like Steve Jobs, Jackie was creating something that would exist beyond herself and the way character is revealed to the audience in both these movies is an important new direction for the biopic genre.

Central performances aside, what also separates these films from the pack is the way in which Boyle and Larrain avoid twee period-drama to give their characters a dynamic and richly detailed thematic setting. One of the joys of Steve Jobs as a film was the integration of visual elements of theatre and design that give insight into Jobs’s aesthetic concerns with beauty and simplicity, alongside the technological images that made aspects of the film seems as though they were taking place inside a computer. For example, backstage at the Opera House in the second launch, Jobs talks to his daughter on a gantry above a sea of cables and coloured lights, while at other times Boyle shows light reflecting from acoustic diffusors and through screens which feel like an operating system. Every image, every single detail has been carefully crafted to shape our perceptions of character, to see a fusion of art, culture and technology that was important to Jobs and his success. This attempt to couch the themes of the film in something other than the central character’s dialogue, allowing us to see the hand of the director, is an important shift in biopic production.

Larrain achieves the same effect in Jackie creating a visual world around her that aptly reflects and reinforces the semi-fictional image of her marriage she wants to present. In the vast maze-like grandeur of the White House, historic and beautifully appointed, Jackie must be worthy of it and make herself part of its history. But it’s a rather austere home, almost clinically clean and preserved, yet it reflects who Jackie becomes by the end, beautiful and perfect on the surface but home to a collection of painful experiences, of deaths and constant endings. Here, as with the borrowed home she meets The Journalist in, everything is remote, not quite relaxed. “Nothing’s ever mine, not to keep” Jackie explains at one point, and you see that in the house too, no one ever stays for long, there’s always someone else to come, and Larrain gives that same sense of transitory ownership, of the White House dwarfing Jackie as she wanders around its corridors alone. For the new biopic then, setting is carefully created as character study, not just a factually accurate creation, but intrinsically part of what the film has to say and how it reflects the personalities and themes under discussion.

The new biopic is then all about scrutiny, not allowing its complicatedly human subjects to escape the critical glare of the viewer. Heroism isn’t the point anymore and while we may still appreciate an individual’s value and importance at the end of the movie, it is balanced by ideas of their frailty, darkness and blindness as well. These dynamically-directed, time-limited complex character-studies are far more than blanket tributes to the achievements of the famous, instead their newly fractured form, tells us that people are difficult, that they achieve great things but they lie or behave badly to cement their place in history. Steve Jobs and Jackie are important markers of a new wave of biopic production that not only examines the power of the individual life, but in the combination of various artistic and story-telling techniques, become a skilled and insightful piece of film-making as well.

Jackie is in cinemas now. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1      


Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom – National Theatre

Ma Rainie's Black Bottom by Johan PerssonThe history of race relations in America is complex and fascinating, with the ongoing struggle for equality frequently explored in films, TV and novels. On the stage, the access point for examining these issues has been music, and several major productions have used the development of jazz, blues and Mowtown sounds as a route to understanding the African American experience. From the hit musical Hairspray which tackles segregation in 60s Baltimore through inter-racial dancing, Memphis the recent West End and Broadway smash about a DJ who loves the blues because of his club singer girlfriend also set in the 60s, to Mowtown the Musical which recently opened in London, it is the music that helps to break down racial divides.

Into this space comes the National Theatre revival of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, August Wilson’s 1989 play set during one afternoon in a recording studio as a blues band await the arrival of their boss, the infamous, Ma Rainey. Instead of rehearsing, the men talk about their lives, their dreams and the difficulties they experience as black musicians having to interact with their white manager and studio boss. All four men, distinguished by age and professional experience, end up in conflict at various times, sometimes over small matters like how many sandwiches they can have or which version of a song to play, while at others they argue fiercely over the human condition and the nature of suffering. Once Ma arrives the dynamic shifts as a powerful woman takes control, and making music becomes only a temporary bandage for their troubles.

This play at its heart is about masculinity but there are two types of masculinity colliding, one which looks back to the past, to deference, respect and dignity represented by piano player Toldeo (Lucian Msamati); the other is the forward facing Levee (O-T Fagbbenle) who is pushing for change, arrogant, certain of himself and refusing to believe that a white man can ever stop him achieving his dream of having his own band. As the story unfolds you learn what made these men who they are, each shaped by an early experience of oppression that sets them onto their particular path.

Levee antagonises everyone, not least band leader Cutler (Clint Dyer) who bickers intermittently with him throughout about everything from songs to religion, but what this does is show you a world in flux, it is 1929 and most of these men are scared of that change, and of the world that Levee represents. What it also does is introduce you to a familiar world of male interaction, where competition and one-upmanship are par for the course, each wanting the last word and to be proved right. Ultimately it sets you up for an ending that is entirely unexpected, but one that you actually realise was completely inevitable.

The character of Ma is a shadow for much of the production, hanging over everything in absentia. They are at the studio at the time she says to record songs she wants, in the way she wants them, but takes some considerable time to actually arrive. When she does she is a diva and everyone cow-tows to her buying her Coca-Cola before she’ll sing, allowing her stuttering nephew to do a song intro and turning up the heat to stop her getting cold. Sharon D Clarke is an awesome stage presence, dismissing those around her and completely certain she’ll get what she wants. She fills the enormous Lyttelton Stage with a ferocious presence and when the tunes eventually arrive, they are glorious – suggesting, in our celebrity-obsessed world, that you can forgive any behaviour for that kind of talent. This is who Levee wants to be.

But, Dominic Cooke’s layered production lets us see the big bad world beyond the Studio where actually Ma’s reach is limited. Here among these people she may be a superstar but she is only allowed to perform at select white functions and even a local policeman sees the colour of her skin before her fame, refusing to accept her side of the story over an alleged assault which delayed her arrival at the Studio. It’s only when her white manager vouchers for her and pays-off the cop that she is free. So however famous and powerful she thinks she is, the play shows she still needs help to maintain her status. What is so brilliant about Clarke’s performance is that she has no idea how dependent she is on anyone else, which only adds to the meaning for the audience. But she’s not a monster in any way and here again it is the music that allows us to see more of her heart when she says that singing the blues isn’t about making herself happy, it’s a necessity to get through the day and make sense of everything.

As ever with the National the designers, Ultz, have outdone themselves with in-effect a three storey construction that implies the nature of status in this play. Initially it’s a bare studio floor, just a microphone and some chairs so you can see all the rigging and lighting backstage in what looks like an enormous empty warehouse. In the centre is a small cabin recording booth up a winding staircase. The third level is downstairs from the studio floor, a rehearsal room which rises up onto the stage like a giant oblong box which is where most of the musician interaction takes place – they are the lowest in this food-chain. Ma dominates the studio area but only the white manager and studio boss are allowed into the cabin where they sit above everyone else, barring entry with a ‘No Admittance’ sign – telling you everything you need to know about this society.

‘Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom’ is a song that eventually we get to hear, one of four the band is set to perform, and the one that causes such anxiety among the band. Perhaps what is so astonishing about this play is that the anxiety it speaks of is not entirely confined to race, but to the nature of people in general. There is no obvious good and bad, no heroes and villains just a group of people trying to survive and often doing the most damage to the very people they should be trying to help. The National’s production couldn’t be more timely with diversity rows overshadowing this year’s Oscars and already rearing its head in the American Presidential campaign. But this play is saying that political respect is only half the battle and respect for individuals and their histories is the key, brought together by wonderful music.

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is at the National Theatre until 18 May. Tickets start at £15 and the production is included in the National’s Friday Rush scheme where tickets are sold for £20 from 1pm.


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