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Kerry Jackson – National Theatre

The National Theatre has quite mixed fortunes when it comes to new play commissions, some become and instant hit – like After Life and the storming success this year of Jack Absolute Flies Again – while others can feel significantly more under-nourished and perhaps staged a little too soon. April De Angelis’s new play Kerry Jackson falls into the latter category with a tale of a relationship across the class divide that looks to explore polarised opinions about homelessness, immigration and compassion between two people who seem, on the surface, ill-suited. But the play never delves beyond its cliched creation of character, political viewpoints and behaviours that retain an essential artifice in their construction, while De Angelis is never sure how she wants the audience to respond to the contradictory scenarios she establishes.

Kerry Jackson is built around two things – the first is the character of Kerry herself, a 52-year-old restaurateur opening her first business in Walthamstow Village and brilliantly played by Fay Ripley. The second is an ongoing scenario in which a homeless man named Will has pitched himself in close proximity to the premises and is repeatedly noted as defecating behind the bins for which Kerry, who openly finds him repulsive and a perceived threat to her livelihood, wants him to be removed. And the biggest issue for Kerry Jackson is where these two ideas interact, leaving the viewer uncertain whether to despair of her views, support them or try to see both sides.

The play just isn’t sure what it wants to say and De Angelis cooks up what often feels like a disconnected collection of scenes that struggle to find either a consistent plot or a political position that it wants to advocate. Is Kerry Jackson making a plea for greater humanity when dealing with homelessness and the individuals it affects, or is Kerry right to be nervous around Will and to eschew the weak liberalism of left-leaning Stephen and his daughter. No one in this story develops, every character is the same at the end and there are no resolutions. Arguably, this reflects a reality in which people do not change that much, but it doesn’t make for engaging or terribly satisfying drama when there is nothing for the viewer to take away.

There are lots of things happening simultaneously in Kerry Jackson but the light-touch treatment of homelessness is its linking thread. The audience sees both perspectives; Kerry’s strident view on Will’s existence and her disgust with his physical appearance and what she believes to be his personal failure to manage his life. This is offset by a rather mawkish interpretation of rough sleeping in which the sensitive Will, know as “The Reader” for his love of books, interacts with the left-wing characters Stephen and Alice who try to help him, at least at a surface level by having conversations and bringing him food. All of that seems relatively straightforward if not terribly incisive, and a potential trajectory in which Kerry changes her mind seems likely.

But then De Angelis muddies the waters so drastically it becomes increasingly unclear why our sympathies must shift from Will and what this mean for the play’s messaging. A crucial scene comes in the Second Act where, having met the characters in several scenarios, Will approaches Kerry one night when she is alone in the restaurant, ostensibly to thank her for giving him a coffee a few days before. In Indhu Rubasingham’s production, the scene is played as potentially threatening, not just through Kerry’s palpable fear in which she edges around the furniture to avoid giving Will (Michael Fox) a physical opportunity to get close to her, but also in the tone of the encounter in which the man’s behaviour is erratic and intimidating. The concept of a relatively defenseless woman (whatever her views), alone in a small room with a younger, taller and stronger man who is covering the exit leads the audience to imagine Will as the very danger that Kerry has always suggested. And later, hearing about his drug problem, it begins to alter our impression of this character and his purpose in the story – the unanswered question though is why and what De Angelis means by it.

There is something potentially Pinteresque about Will and the situation which, like The Caretaker, creates an opportunity for an unknown outsider to enter an established world and disrupt it. The potential power shifts could be quite an interesting directional shift in an otherwise naturalistic play and one that, as is often the case with Pinter, could make comments about wealth and class being overturned, with new social orders coming into effect. But Kerry Jackson is a comedy and doesn’t take this opportunity to use the character as any kind of reflective instrument either for Kerry or the audience who are instead lead to think Will wasn’t so nice after all. Meanwhile, Stephen’s liberal hand-wringing over him is ultimately no more helpful when Stephen’s kindness only goes so far before it begins to encroach on his own life. What then is Will’s purpose in this play?

Everything in Kerry Jackson should be in service of the the title character and the greater understanding or development of her personality. And she is a complicated creation, at least in Ripley’s performance, who in some ways is admirable; a middle-aged woman starting her own business to which she is dedicated, someone who doesn’t give up on the things she wants and is confident enough in herself to start a relationship with Stephen despite the differences between them, refusing to be cowed by the class shaming that is sometimes directed at her. Kerry can also be kind, even thoughtful, she cares deeply about her friends including chef Athena (Madeline Appiah) and unseen pal Carol, has plenty of self-awareness and even conceeds that Will is “alright.”

But then there is the other side to this character who complains about homelessness and immigration levels, lashes out in thoughtless and sometimes racist ways, voted Leave despite running a tapas restaurant and loving Spain, and is comfortable manipulating others to help herself. Kerry is also prone to making graphic revelations about bodily functions that tend to end conversations. What is lacking in both the character of Kerry and in the wider staging is any sense of the grounded reality of these people, that they have convincing lives beyond and between the scenes. Go around the corner to the Lytteleton and Clint Dyer will transport you with his consuming Othello, hauling you ready or not into that world, but Kerry Jackson just doesn’t feel real enough.

And part of that is convincingly creating a backstory for Kerry that barely exists in this production. Who is she and where does she come from? De Angelis drops a single hint that she gave up a child as a young woman but it is never mentioned again, nor is her inability to find a lasting relationship. At 52, Kerry is unmarried, childless and opening a business; she seems to be happy, even flourishing yet she is an archetype, a colourful one granted, but the writer never fully investigates her story or her psychological state. How has giving up a baby or not finding a significant other shaped her attitude to life – if it hasn’t then why mention it at all? What has Kerry been doing during her adult years prior to joining the restaurant business and how is she finding the money to open this one? Why tapas? Why Walthamstow? And what does she ultimately want? Has class been a barrier to her success? Does she resent being looked down upon by people like Stephen and how does she reconcile all her complicated and contradictory views?

There is so much potential in this character that is never exploited and Kerry as a creation doesn’t actually go anywhere. She doesn’t quite say “I am what I am,” but she may as well because this is the person that De Angelis presents and it becomes the story’s main strength as well as its dramatic weakness. If a character doesn’t change, learn or develop through the action of the play, if they don’t act as a warning or a moral allegory, if the story doesn’t take them or their situation forward in some way, then however funny, impressive or shocking they are, it is not clear why that have been called into existence for 2.5 hours in the Dorfman and why the audience should care.

The same can be said of all of the other principal characters unfortunately. Michael Gould’s Stephen is a man riddled with middle-class guilt, a walking cliche of cloth-bag carrying, bicycle riding, European literature reading wealthy liberalism – “Jeremy Corbyn without the sex appeal.” Recovering from his wife’s death, there are strands about him cheating on her when she was sick that are referenced but not used to comment on his own personality in any substantive sense – is he a man who leaves when the going gets tough? – and he has an antagonistic attitude to Kerry that blossoms into a primarily sexual attraction. Again, Gould gives him some life but his philosophy teacher doesn’t feel real and also ends up exactly where he started, learning nothing from Kerry except to reinforce his own prejudice about her. The audience also learns nothing about why this man would find solace with such a different woman. Is De Angelis’s point that opposites don’t attract whatever Paula Abdul may have to say on the matter?

The least effective character is Stephen’s daughter whose role in the drama seems even less clear than the others. She is there as a slightly more extreme version of her father with a compassionate earnestness that sets her against Kerry, although not immediately and is largely seen as misguided or misplaced. This lightly sketched creation also talks about grief but never demonstrates it, seems to encourage her father’s dating life but then resent its, demands greater freedom from his stifling care and then behaves like a sulky child for much of the story. Alice (Kitty Hawthorne) is even rather vindictive, inviting Will into the restaurant to give him Kerry’s stock for free – and behind the backs of the owner and chef (who gets nothing but a deportation story herself) – but never displays an ounce of understanding for anyone else. It is not clear what De Angelis uses this character to do other than give Stephen someone to talk to and be another face in the restaurant rather than explore the layers of her own grief and fears about change resulting from her mother’s death.

None of this is aided by the deeply artificial scene setting which from the start never escapes the feeling of watching actors in a play. De Angelis sets this drama in the tapas restaurant and in Stephen’s suave kitchen. Set designer Richard Kent creates a revolving block set for these two otherwise static rooms, except almost nothing said in Stephen’s house is site specific, certainly in Act One and the rotation becomes a distraction with Stephen and Alice failing to justify this investment in a private space for their relationship, adding to the lack of reality in Kerry Jackson that seems to infect place and structure as much as it does dialogue and character. Kent’s restaurant set works better (although three tables isn’t much of a business) but still there is little atmosphere of a busy London borough, no sense of bustle or distant traffic, or even other customers to suggest place and it makes the two locations of the play, however detailed their realisation, seem adrift from the city they supposedly exist in.

Kerry Jackson is ultimately the vehicle for De Angelis to explore the polarisation of left and right at the local, everyday level. This is the prism through which attitudes to social justice, education, wealth, class and character are then explored. Yet the results it too stagey and inconclusive to elicit any real meaning for the audience, problems too fundamental for any major changes to be possible before this week’s Press Night. So while Kerry Jackson has some funny lines and moments, and indeed Ripley’s very enjoyable central performance, there needs to be another six months of development time to crystallise its perspective and determine what it wants to say. Compare this to equivalent works that pit opposing views against each other such as Simon Wood’s Hansard or the sophistication of James Graham’s political but character-driven and entertaining This House and Best of Enemies (opening in the West End last week) and Kerry Jackson ultimately feels too lightweight in its treatment of the issues it covers.

Kerry Jackson is at the National Theatre until 28 January with tickets from £20. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog.

Blues for an Alabama Sky – National Theatre

A lack of choice connects female stories across the ages as women find themselves hemmed in by a lack of opportunity, access to education and agency to determine their own path. Some of those structures are patriarchal, others economic and social, but all of them restrict and confine, ensuring women become something other than themselves. Looking across cultural representations of women in the past 100 years it is possible to draw connections between characters such as Hester Collier in Terence Rattigan’s The Deep Blue Sea, Patrick Hamilton’s Jenny from Twenty Thousand Streets Under the Sky, even up to Kyo Choi’s Kim Han-See in The Apology, all of whom are in pursuit of a fantasy life that will never be fulfilled. Pearl Cleage’s Blues for an Alabama Sky, opening at the National Theatre this week, adds another unknowingly tragic heroine to that list, singer Angel who will grasp at an opportunity to get out of Harlem in 1930.

The concept of the American Dream and the extent to which it ever applied to women is something that Cleage explores in her play as every character pursues something beyond themselves, something better that will fundamentally alter the daily grind and transform them. Written in 1995, Cleage’s play draws heavily on the intimate boarding house and lodgings worlds of Rattigan and Hamilton in which urban, financially straightened lives are stacked together in densely packed neighbourhoods. And like these earlier works, Cleage emphasises the individual humanity and consequent value of the decent, hardworking community she depicts in a progressive piece that looks to personal attributes rather than limited religious and moral codes imposed by others to shape our responses to her cast.

Cleage sets the action primarily in a single two-room apartment over several weeks which becomes the focus of interaction between neighbours, lovers and friends navigating the next stage of their lives during the Great Depression. And Cleage quickly establishes a group of forward-looking dreamers, people seen as radical in quite different ways by their own community, sometimes dangerously so and not for the reasons we might expect. The context is constrictive and mundane – economic downturn, prohibition and high unemployment (symbolised by the lead characters losing their jobs at the start of the play) – but the lives within are nonetheless vibrant, full of possibility for bettering themselves and their local area while embracing the growing devotion to popular culture that provides a two folder escape – one in their imagination and one in reality.

Angel and her best friend Guy are characters whose dream life and real life could unite, bringing them both the recognition and glamour they crave. Guy’s work as a designer for cabaret and performance artists is sustained by the dream of working for Josephine Baker in Paris to whom he has an unexplained connection. But it drives his narrative, allowing him to indulge in the fantasy of working for her, which he cannot be swayed from, while practically working towards it with a job that puts him at the centre of a creative local scene of parties, drinking and affairs which simultaneously becomes a refuge from the daily grind. Angel meanwhile takes on work as a singer to support her dream of becoming a more famous singer. Yet her dream is compromised by an innate recognition that she will never achieve it, and instead pursues a course of survival that results in more questionable behaviour. Is Angel an inescapable and inevitable product of her gendered circumstances, Cleage askes, or does she actively sabotage herself to ensure those dreams always fail?

Throughout Blues for an Alabama Sky, Angel is a character with a notable duality. There is a deep vulnerability stemming from the knowledge that her body as much as her voice has sustained her, attracting a series of ‘gangsters’ and inappropriate men who only maintain a passing interest beyond the instant gratification of being her lover. And Angel actively seems to be looking for love, each encounter beginning with the hope that, like Sally Bowles, maybe this time it will work out. All of this pain makes Angel such a powerful blues singer, leaving the audience to hope that she will make it after all.

Like Rattigan’s Hester, Hamilton’s Jenny and indeed Isherwood’s Sally, Angel is under the illusion that she has choice, that she can direct and shape the future before her. Hester believes that if Freddy could just return her feelings with the same fervor, rendering all other difference between them immaterial, everything will be fine; Jenny is looking for the next man who can give her the material comforts she deserves and Sally too is looking for something real, that the next man will see her for the first time. Angel likewise falsely clings to the notion that traditional respectability – husband, family and home – will somehow snuff out all the other things she has had to do to achieve them, that if a man can love her enough, everything else will be insignificant, even her own desires. That each of these women is trapped into dependence on a man to rescue them is entirely a product of their society and the expectations placed on women to conform even when they are already living outside those structures. The tragedy comes from the failure of men to accept them and how decidedly that destroys their hopes.

A further tragedy in Angel’s character, and perhaps the most important moral point of Cleage’s work, is that Angel has gradations of selfishness that steal her happy ending, that she is prepared to stomp over anyone to get what she thinks she wants. In contrast to the behaviour of other characters, Angel uses people, lies and even betrays herself in order to become the potential wife that beau Leland may accept. And in the process she tears down her friend Guy in order to do it. These are survival techniques of a women with only herself to rely on, but in using her body to secure a different kind of status that she hopes will bring respectability and stability – regardless of his own questionable views – her body creates a response of its own, one which Angel coldly manages when a better opportunity presents itself.

Contrast this with Cleage’s parallel creation, Delia, Guy’s neighbour, who forms a counterpoint to the central pairing and in many ways is the pure heart of Blues for an Alabama Sky. Delia is a prototype for women’s rights, recognising the distressing lives of her community and prepared to face personal approbation and resistance by opening a Family Planning clinic. Though herself a virgin, as Guy discovers early on, Delia is an advocate of choice that will give women biological and economic freedom, and the play follows her progress through religious and medical objections, creating a character who is constructively forward-thinking and virtuous in her motives.

But Delia is given complexity through her growing attraction to local doctor Sam and her uncomplicated affection and acceptance of her neighbours. Non-judgmental, inclusive and encouraging, Delia experiences difficulty throughout the play quite differently to Angel and that treatment comes from character’s essential goodness and desire to contribute something beyond herself. The outcomes of the play, though tragic for the women in various ways, reflect a moral judgement by the writer who sets quite different paths for them both – Delia afforded true and reciprocated feeling that expands her emotional experience as a woman while Angel is left almost exactly where we found her; perhaps a little harder, more jaded but about to embark on the same destructive cycle.

The male characters by contrast are notably defined by their location, Guy and Sam products of Harlem while lover Leland bringing a darker cloud emanating from his Alabama moral and deeply Christian views that cause significant disruption within the group, shaping the plays central questions about appropriate ways to live. Men too are limited by their world and while it is perhaps too easy to suggest they suffer differently to women, Cleage looks at questions of masculinity and expectation in urban environments. That Guy represents a challenge to the traditional notions of manliness which Leland symbolises is one of Cleage’s most engaging themes as the two contend for a kind of primacy that manifests in a fight for Angel’s soul.

Guy is the kinder man which is reflected in Cleage’s perspective on female agency in the play, as he supports the development of his friend while Leland actively seeks to limit her. Sam likewise plays a role in facilitating Delia’s success, a meeting of minds that takes place in an enclosed but open-minded community where a modern morality and approach to sex, work and shared living finds itself hampered by traditional regulation and attitudes. Leland is the faultline along which these two worlds meet and collide, bringing dangerous but decisive consequences for the Harlem set.

The first half of the play is, by extension, very character and scenario focused, and while it establishes the narrative and motivational drivers, Cleage spends a long time setting-up the parameters in which the more traditional drama will then play out in the final third of the action, the pace of which Director Lynette Linton manages really well. Some may find it slow and ponderous while others will be fascinated by the ways in which Cleage constructs these lives and starts to draw the audience into their story, only realising in the final scenes how the long work of Act One created investment in the happiness and success of these neighbours, and how affectingly Cleage has created their circumstances and choices.

Samira Wiley captures all the contradictions in Angel’s character, the love of the party and that underlying fear that it is almost over for her that brings out a kind of desperation. Angel is deeply cynical, almost ground down in her belief that dreams don’t come true and the actor develops her pragmatic, sometimes cruel and headstrong side as she sets her sights on a more achievable outcome, all the while Wiley’s maintains Angel’s refusal to accept this is not what she truly wants. Ronke Adekoluejo’s Delia is a complete contrast with plenty of contradictions that help to make the character more rounded. Adekoluejo makes her shy and determined, innocent but knowledgeable about the medical needs of women, radical in her vision for the community and acceptance of others but looking for a traditional loving relationship, all of which Adekoluejo makes relatable and credible.

Giles Terera has a very busy rep season ahead, rehearsing the leading role in Othello opening in November as well as playing the flamboyant Guy here. Terera’s sensitive performance is very smart, taking a character who lives a bigger life than the others, filled with showbusiness parties and aspirations but still making him vulnerable, grounded and loyal to the people he cares about. There are some great scenes with Osy Ikhile’s Leland as the two men prowl around one another, subtly glaring as their very different outlooks clash, while Sule Rimi places Sam somewhere between the two, rational about the everyday needs of his patients but equally drawn to the possibility of finally meeting someone to share with it.

Staged on Frankie Bradshaw’s superb rotating house set, which echoes Tom Scutt’s excellent semi-translucent design for the 2016 production of The Deep Blue Sea, it creates a sense of lives packed in and overlapping. Blues for an Alabama Sky has much to say about the price of giving up on a dream and why it is often a woman who has to compromise. All of Angel’s choices are ultimately taken from her and while others may find a different future at the end of the play, like Hester, Jenny and Sally, Angel can never be anything else.

Blues for an Alabama Sky is at the National Theatre until 5 November with tickets from £20. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog.

The Apology – Arcola Theatre

It always takes one lone voice, someone brave enough to stand up and speak about what happened to them. Soon, others will follow inspired by that first individual and that is how truths eventually come to light. With Maria Schrader and Rebecca Lenkiewicz’s She Said about the journalists supporting Harvey Weinstein’s victims coming to the London Film Festival next month, there is a very contemporary interest in powerful men eventually brought to justice by the collective voices of women. But for many sufferers of sexual assault and violence, what happens next? And is that justice ever really enough? Kyo Choi’s new play, The Apology, looks at sexual slavery in the Second World War and insists that a tactical political apology isn’t remotely enough for the women and their families denied official acknowledgment of responsibility from modern governments.

Choi is one of the most exciting new playwrights of the post-pandemic period. Her focus on sexual violence against women and its cultural origins in the complex inheritance of trauma and patriarchal structures has resulted in two of the most interesting plays of 2022. Galápagos opened at the Bridewell Theatre in March, a fascinating piece performed by the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama students looking at campus rape and the long influence of Greek mythology in shaping male attitudes to women’s bodies and their ownership.

Choi’s second play, premiering at the Arcola Theatre, is just as poignant, looking at military-sanctioned sexual slavery by the Japanese army which abducted Korean women and forced them to work in camps satisfying as many as 20 soldiers per day, a fact kept silent until the early 1990s when a Human Rights lawyer began an investigation into war crimes against women, followed by an unsatisfactory apology from the, then, Japanese leader which is the basis of this play.

Using original testimony and research, The Apology is a more successful drama than Silence which uses a similar structure and verbatim approach to bring historic testimony to the stage while arguing for the contemporary relevance of the issues it contains. Where Sonali Bhattacharyya, Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti, Ishy Din and Alexandra Wood focused their evidence-gathering around a single female journalist character writing a book about the brutality and consequences of Indian Partition, The Apology places lawyer Priyanka Silva at its heart as the conduit for several intersecting lives and stories revealed over several years as part of a United Nations investigation. But the character of Priyanka is not a passive one as the journalist in Silence was, and Choi uses her to examine the wider implications of the case being built against the Japanese army as well as its universal political and moral ramifications. These reach far beyond the pain of individual survivors as governments attempt to obfuscate and demur, playing for time until the women have died rather than admit to any guilt, shame or official culpability – a situation shared also by the Korean family depicted in the play.

But Choi’s first purpose it to correct a misdefinition. Given the rather coy term of “comfort women” by history, The Apology directly challenges the linguistic sanitisation of what was in fact sexual slavery and the mass, organised rape of women in lands occupied by the Japanese Army. And what happened to them was not prostitution – the women were neither willing participants, nor were they paid – instead they endured repeated violation until the camps were liberated at the end of the war. These revised definitions are challenged throughout the play by its only male character in an official position, an American who tries to deter Priyanka’s investigation. But the lawyer, and indeed Choi herself, are rightly ferocious in their insistence that this was an act of State violence against female bodies which must be openly acknowledged and responsibility accepted. And, as armies sweep through the region in the final months of the war, Japan is not the only nation to take advantage of the pre-existing “comfort women.”

The Apology, then, has three strands; the first gives the play its shape, focusing on Priyanka’s work from 1991 to 1996 when the UN’s official report was published. This is the primary dramatic driver in which the lawyer gathers and presents statistical evidence, interviews victims and responds to broader attempts by her American counterpart based in Seoul to derail or challenge her work. As the process develops from preliminary inquiry to official investigation, Choi uses the passing of the years as a platform to examine the seemingly slow but methodical nature of intergovernmental organisations and the complexities of building a legal case – one that like Kim Sun-Hee, the first woman to speak out, Priyanka must pursue alone. The extent to which this can be influenced or compromised by contemporary (and indeed historic) political relationships is an interesting one and Choi looks at the protection of American interest, not only in shielding itself from counter-accusation of war crimes but how the ‘voluntary’ funding structure potentially compromises neutral institutions like the UN for which the US currently provides an annual grant 10% higher than any other nation.

Within this structure, Choi introduces parallel stories set also in the 1990s but with roots in the events of the Second World War. The most powerful of these is the story of Kim Sun-Hee, a former slave desperate to forget what happened to her but, 50 years on, remains deeply traumatised by the camps. This is the most poignant section of Choi’s play, the experience of a 16-year old girl offered the chance to become a nurse and instead taken to a labour camp where she is raped by two men on the first night and hundreds if not thousands more in the years that follow. Told in retrospect by the older Sun-Hee, Choi gives her two different outlets for her narrative. One is through interviews with Priyanka that are often deeply moving and sensitively discussed. While there is no graphic detail or sensationalism, the extent and frequency of her violation smashes against an almost fruitless need for justice, the disappointment that speaking out doesn’t bring instant vilification to those who abused her.

But Sun-Hee also has another private space in which to tell her story where Choi gives primacy to the character’s own interior voice and experience quite separate from the rigorous but administrative demands of the investigation. This is sometimes difficult to watch as the character proclaims the deep psychological pain that afflicts her still, chastising herself and unable to contain the different emotions that still rage inside her mixing shame, guilt and fear of the consequences with anger and a feeling of loss for the briefly carefree girl she once was. Seemingly talking to her younger embodiment, Sun-Hee berates her equivalent self as Choi brings some of her memories to life, giving them a freshness for the audience that emphasises the depth of the trauma. But there is purpose here, giving weight to the testimony without sensationalising the experience for dramatic effect which Choi manages responsibly and with consideration for the reality of her subjects.

The final subset of the play centres around a family experience, a father and daughter concealing their own truths from one another. Initially this is the least successful part of The Apology, the interaction between Chief Purser Han Yuna returning from international flights to see her retired parent Han Min is a little stilted, even slightly repetitive as the awkward domestic life of the characters and Yuna’s absent mother feels a little undercooked. So too does Min’s refusal to address his emotional concealment which has a slightly soapy dynamic.

But the value of this pairing is much clear in Act Two and a compelling interview scene between Min and Priyanka is one of the strongest in the play as several new layers are revealed. And these are important dynamics being explored, not just of the silence of the Korean people in the years since the Second World War and the shame (and blame) still attached to the women themselves, but how these socio-political responses have shaped domestic inheritance between the generations. When Yuna reacts against the saintly worship of her mother, proclaiming hatred for the woman she never knew, the audience is ahead of the character in understanding how deeply three levels of the play – the political, personal and the domestic – have conspired to create an inherited silence among those most deeply affected.

Sarah Lam is outstanding as Sun-Hee and her first moments on stage are immediately affecting as her character vocalises her pain. The need to find some kind of justice but also understanding, even forgiveness is palpable while Lam captures well the fear of being the first to speak out and the disappointed hope that it will make a difference, that just saying the words aloud will be enough. But Lam also moves Sun-Hee to a different kind of reconciliation with the past in the second Act that becomes something like acceptance of self if not quite the retribution and compensation she wanted.

Sharan Phull’s Priyanka is a determined and quietly indomitable character, prepared to put in the time to create a compelling case but respectful of the people that she represents. Some of Phull’s best scenes are in argumentative combat with Ross Armstrong’s Jock Taylor, a borderline flirtatious relationship – for him at least – that tries to sway Priyanka by any means necessary, but Phull imbues her character with an integrity and purpose that drive the story forward.

There is good support from Minhee Yeo as Yuna representing a confused post-war generation unable to relate to her parents while Kwong Loke really takes the opportunity to get under the surface of Min in Act Two as the truth about his life is finally revealed and Loke’s strong performance is one of the play’s most successful scenes. Completing the cast, Jessica Baek plays Kwon Bok-Hae, the younger version of Sun-Hee who speaks very little but captures the lightness of youth as well as the dark period of captivity and debasement she endures in the character’s memory.

Designer TK Hay has papered the walls, floor and staircase in what must be the pages of the UN’s report, effectively emphasising the vast numbers of women whose story this is across Asia in the mid to late 1940s, some of whom appear in projected images designed by Gillian Tan towards the end of the play. Directed by Ria Parry, plenty of time is given to the testimonies of survivors as well as the complicated process of investigation helping the audience to understand personal betrayals, the changing stakes and international political avoidance that interact across this story, but the show retains a decent pace across its 135-minute running time.

Choi’s play is powerful without being sentimental, avoiding the kind of western hand-wringing that often accompanies issues like this. Instead, it looks to establish the facts beyond doubt and the importance of building an argument for war crimes against women that makes The Apology all the more effective. It is ultimately a question of human rights, Choi and Priyanka argue. Sexual violence against women will sadly always be a part of conflict, rape is a weapon of war but while the UN have made it an official war crime, conviction is rare. It may only need the voice of one woman to inspire others but until she is believed and not shamed, what hope is there for justice?

The Apology is at the Arcola Theatre until 8 October with tickets from £12. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog.

Who Killed My Father -Young Vic

Who Killed My Father - (by Jan Versweyveld)

A page to stage transfer can be difficult, especially when the novel only contains a singular narrative voice or interior monologue that may struggle to find dramatic impact and depth in the theatre. Do you defy the original author and tell the story from the playwright’s perspective instead, dramatising the individual scenes from multiple angles or make it a monologue in which a single actor must recreate the voices and experiences of other characters in memory or fantasy sequences? For Ivo van Hove’s treatment of Édouard Louis’s 2018 book Who Killed My Father, it is the latter, a socio-political one-man show staged at the Young Vic as part of Internationaal Theater Amsterdam’s European production tour.

van Hove is a superb director of intimacy and tension in confined settings, marshaling the emotional beats of a story that often build to a final devastating and decisive conclusion, particularly in personal relationship between lovers or within families. His recent West End revival of The Human Voice staring Ruth Wilson was a carefully constructed examination of a woman on the edge of destruction, trapped in her box-framed flat and unraveling as the play unfolded. Likewise, van Hove explored the private and layers of relationships in Arthur Miller’s family tragedy A View from the Bridge – still one of his most memorable productions – also at the Young Vic. In Who Killed My Father, van Hove is back in similar territory where masculinity, social expectation and inevitability play out across the life of one family in the last two decades.

And citing these two examples is pertinent because in staging the play, van Hove merges elements from both in the visual language of Who Killed My Father and in the emphasis that van Hove in his role as adapter and director gives to different elements of the story. Designed by regular collaborator Jan Versweyveld, like The Human Voice, this show takes place in a defined box-like structure, a device that instantly gives the contents a screening feel but also a sense of containment, reflected further in the interior which is a single room – not a high-rise flat like The Human Voice but possibly a cell or hospice room that contains the narrative markers of the story; some are sparce furnishings like a bed and a television used to illustrate particular memories while others are more ethereal concepts that speak to a life defined by violence such as the fist-pummeled walls.

Versweyveld has created the perfect canvas in fact onto which van Hove can paint Louis’s story, a set that will contain decades of family life, multiple rooms and conversations as well as the bombastic ebullience of a working class masculinity that becomes as brittle and lifeless as it was once dominant and powerful. These tonal changes are captured through Versweyveld’s cinematographic lighting design – another feature shared with The Human Voice – in which darkness or shadow have as much to contribute as the rich golden hues that flood the stage when the narrator talks about paternal love and the clinical starkness of the greyish white light that even tinges the audience as the manly force of the father is broken and then prevented from ever rising again.

Into that physical space van Hove places a story that has some similarities with Miller’s troubled Carbones. Both involve strong patriarchal figures whose dominance of their families kindles destructive impulses from within and both focus on the intense consequences of that power waning within a small household unit. Louis’s text really looks at cycles of inherited masculinity and the difficulty of breaking out of those traits. It asks some large and generally unanswered questions about where manly ideals come from, how they become ingrained and the methods of transfer between generations. The expectations pressed on a father are then equally expected of a son, gendered norms that are initially oppressive but soon become learned behaviours that perpetuate toxic and harmful myths about what is means to be a man.

van Hove makes this the centrepiece of his play, the complex interaction between two men who are so different yet entirely the same. But, with some initial information given about a violent and abusive grandfather who physically harmed his wife and children, there is a clear pattern of and template for male behaviour that is being passed down the generations here, one which we are left to assume, but cannot be fully certain, that the narrator has broken free from. In telling this story, in which the son is speaking directly to the father, is he accusing or concerned he might be the same as the man who raised him?

The place where hate ends and love begins is murky so while a particular scene may condemn a character entirely, there is complexity across a lifetime of knowing someone that never vindicates them but suggests, for this son and his father at least, that there was more to their relationship than a polarised feeling of hate or appreciation, that day-to-day, fear and love were bound up in each other and with other kinds of responses like shame, guilt, resentment, pride and admiration.

Like Louis’s novel, van Hove retains the non-chronological order of events so the audience is never entirely sure when things occurred and to what extent it suggests patterns of behaviour in either man. Several crucial things appear to happen when the narrator is seven; his father is thrown out by his mother but may be taken back, he performs a pivotal dance sequence to Barbie Girl by Aqua, performing the female role, which his father ignores and there are arguments about what manliness looks like. Lots of other contextual information is hinted at including the father’s movement between different factories, the relative poverty of the family who feel judged by others and a latent homophobia that comes from both parents, although the narrator briefly states he takes male lovers in Paris as an adult.

This blurring of time is there to create an impression rather than a distinct blow-by-blow account of family life, and often the information conveyed is contradictory. The notion of love and hate are at the heart of this complexity and there are many stories about the father’s verbal and mental abuse of his children using silence and insults as a means of shaping his boy into the man he needs to be, occasionally referencing neighbours and outsiders who compound these ideals. Yet there is real love for his father as well, a man who rejects his son’s birthday present idea but buys it anyway and then goes to some effort to feed the boy’s interest afterwards. The audience never quite knows whether the father is the monster we are presented with – and crucially he is barely personified until quite some way into the play. Or is the narrator only remembering particularly high and low moments that shaped him rather than the less notable constants of day-to-day life?

And what of the women who barely seem to feature in this story at all. The narrator’s mother is generally referred to as a rather saintly figure which is common in domestic violence households where children want to protect and save their mother from harm. But in the few scenes she appears in, the mother either nags her son or uses gossipy neighbours as a reason to chastise her son for publicly exhibiting homosexual behaviour, something she is embarrassed by. Yet, there the narrator suggests no resentment of his mother or takes time to reflect on her as a real character, exploring neither the relationship she had with his father, her decision to take him back or, crucially, what happens to her at the end of this story. It is also very late in the play that our storyteller mentions a couple of sisters, people not known about before or afterwards who have been entirely excised from this history and from the scenarios the audience has been asked to imagine. Louis and van Hove leave this information hanging, but where are and who are the women in this story?

Taking place in the last twenty years, music has quite an important function in Who Killed My Father, particularly pop and dance that continually reference a surrounding popular culture that so often defines van Hove’s productions. Aqua appear a number of times as the crucial Barbie Girl dance routine recurs in several roots of memory but there is other music too, particularly Celine Dion’s My Heart Will Go On which is relevant to and underscores a section about paternal love, and there is a beautiful spinning disco ball scene early on as the narrator embraces dance as a means of expression. Versweyveld creates a vortex of swirling light that is equally beautiful and disorientating in keeping with the themes of this piece.

But Who Killed My Father does come a little unstuck in its final 10-minutes with a scene of directed political rage that breaks free of the intimate and becomes a tirade against French health policy. Violence against the body as an act of State is the theme and while there is some useful connection here with the notion of bodily attack committed by men in their own homes, the withdrawal of health benefits and declassification of conditions feels suddenly out of place in what has been a tightly focused domestic story. The switch from the effects of the father in that space to the State’s betrayal of its citizens is too sudden and even as the narrator quite literally steps out of his box to berate a series of male French ministers and Presidents who perpetrated these widescale betrayals and attacks on the working classes, the audience loses some sense of what this play has been about – the individual, complicated connection between father and son trapped in their own social roles.

Appearing recently as Menelaus in Age of Rage at the Barbican, regular collaborator Hans Kesting is tremendous in the leading role, holding the audience in thrall for the show’s entire 90-minute running time. This is a monologue that demands considerable stamina and control, not giving too much away too soon and managing the rhythm of a tale that generates plenty of tension. Its structure seems fluid as memories and thoughts overlay one another but it demands a great deal from Kesting who rises to meet the challenge, drawing the audience in with impressive characterisation yet holding them at arms length to maintain the ambiguities of the central perspective and its protagonist.

It is always exciting seeing van Hove’s work for the Internationaal Theater Amsterdam with its cinematic vision encapsulated in theatrical form. Here in Who Killed My Father there is both intimacy and scale that neatly capture the contradictions and complexities of loving a family member. The title of this work may not be a question but it certainly makes a statement.

Who Killed My Father is at the Young Vic until 24 September with tickets from £10. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog.

Silence – Donmar Warehouse

Verbatim theatre can be extremely powerful, its cumulative anthology approach creating the broadest picture of an issue or the impact of an event in the affecting words of those who lived through it that show the widespread political, socio-economic and cultural implications across multiple communities, countries and eras. But it can also be difficult to stage in ways that effectively capture the full force of those original testimonies, giving them the individual space that each experience demands while also meeting a dramatic quality that theatre embodies. Sonali Bhattacharyya (who wrote Chasing Hares at the Young Vic), Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti, Ishy Din and Alexandra Wood’s new play Silence, premiering at the Donmar Warehouse, tries to navigate this dilemma in its exploration of Indian Partition and the long silence from those who were there.

Verbatim theatre productions usually go in one of two directions; in the first, the writer creates a strong narrative frame which semi-fictionalises the circumstances or the events it covers, using oral history interviews and conversations with participants to feed into the dialogue and the creation of specific scenarios that may compress, reflect or distill the experience of multiple people into a single character or sequence. This is often how the National Theatre approaches a verbatim show like Francesca Martinez’s All of Us, telling a story but using original words as evidence like a historian would to support the broader case being made for action, change or greater understanding.

An alternative outlet for verbatim theatre is the character-based structure that tells whole stories in a series of chapters dedicated to different individuals who give their perspective on events. It doesn’t take single phrases or paragraphs out of their original context and merge them together, but presents one wholesale experience at a time to an audience. This approach – which is the one taken by Silence – largely leaves the audience to draw its own conclusions based on the information presented across the different voices, building a picture of multiple effects, themes and consequences that create a muddier picture of everyday life than perhaps offered by the more structured approach to verbatim theatre. It is one that makes room for the complexities and contradictions of humanity and of individual behaviour and it, arguably, more accurately reflects the lived experience. But there is a theatrical cost in terms of presentational variety and dramatic drive across rather than within these pieces.

Silence includes multiple fascinating, shocking and terrible stories within its 105-minute running time. Based on Kavita Puri’s book Bhattacharyya, Kaur Bhatti, Din and Wood put a Puri figure at the centre of the drama as a writer looking to collect stories about the effect of Indian Partition on her now UK-based community of Indian immigrants and their descendants. Cast in journalistic mode, the protagonist is looking to write about the thin white line the British drew and its long-lasting effects, so the audience is shown the process of tracking down willing representatives from the Muslim, Hindu and Sikh communities in India in 1947 and the series of interviews that take place in which the interviewer is a largely wordless observer of another life – her silence in the moment of retelling mirroring their long refusal to speak about those painful years.

Starting with the bigger picture, Silence is ultimately an awareness exercise, its purpose is to give voice to the effects and problems generated by Partition that have shaped individual lives, the diaspora of Indian peoples around the world as well as being the basis for modern and contentious division between India and Pakistan. It is not an overtly political play in that it isn’t seeking to affect change or to champion a specific policy that will improve the here and now, and while it does have many political dimensions, not least in highlighting the ongoing consequences of empire, for better or for worse, Silence tries to look beyond the national decision-making and process of Partition to focus on micro level events in the lives of everyday citizens. In doing so, it argues for a common understanding that Partition marked a sea change in multiple contexts, not just in the overhasty British withdrawal from India but that the ill-conceived and poorly implemented process had painful family and neighbourly implications that changed everyone.

Bhattacharyya, Kaur Bhatti, Din and Wood use an openly verbatim structure, in which their central character essentially ‘collects’ the reminiscences of others in order to write a book about the effects of Partition on India communities in the UK. The dramatic driver is her dismissive father who maintains his own silence about the events of 1947 and its immediate aftermath which, as the writers provide further context through other recollections, builds eventually to this man’s story and a greater understanding for descendant generations. In between, the protagonist is a shadowy figure, sitting in recess, often to the side of the stage, as her interlocutor talks without interruption and director Abdul Shayek conjures up their different perspectives on this divisive event.

And there is much to learn about the deep complexity of this period that, as Silence argues, suddenly and crudely drew a line between two countries and several religions that had existed in relative harmony before. There are semi-hopeful stories of neighbours shielding each other from violence, of Romeo and Juliet-like couples with different forms of worship who fled together and built a life, and of individuals coming to realise later how much more they had in common than divided them. So while hindsight is a wonderful thing and it may have taken decades to finally reach that conclusion, Silence does explore the opportunity to grow and understand beyond the immediacy of Partition.

But largely, Bhattacharyya, Kaur Bhatti, Din and Wood’s contributors paint a sorry picture of mobs hounding difference out of their neighbourhoods, of deliberate tit-for-tat desecration of religious spaces, of hundreds of desperate refugees crowded on trains and forced into destitution by the occupation of their land, the scale and brutality of the displacement caused by Britain’s “white line” astounding. These experiences are given extra edges by the inclusion of Sikh, Muslim and Hindu voices all reporting similar atrocities committed against them by a newly formed ‘other’ or ‘enemy’, while the rape and torture of women as well as the killing of children is a sadly inevitable outcome of this new form of warfare. Hearing these testimonies from workers and mayors, mothers and administrative assistants to the last Viceroy, even white men born and raised in India, is powerful, almost overwhelmingly so in what proves to be the strongest element of Silence but also its limitation as a theatrical piece.

The ways in which these stories are presented on stage are often too similar. Largely, the speaker sits on the same side of the stage and recounts their story uninterrupted. These conversations replicated how Puri heard them in multiple living rooms across the country, so designer Rose Revitt offers different arrangements of furniture to convey these place changes, yet still the story is delivered as one person sitting down and speaking for 20-minutes. Cumulatively, there is a power in that, in hearing so many tales that build a broader impression of Partition, but it makes the overarching drama too episodic and creates too many peaks and troughs as one story dramatically ends and another begins, making it hard for the audience to understand the pace of the show and how an overall conclusion will emerge.

Director Shayek does some very interesting and atmospheric things with backdrops and projected photographs, telling one story entirely in silhouetted movement, backlit behind a curtain as another actor mimes on the main stage. Another uses Elena Pena’s sound effects and soft orange lighting by Ciaran Cunningham to generate an immersive impression of India at night, a romantic memory of children playing harmoniously together or wistfully watching the packed trains speed by on their way to some exciting destination years before. But the show does take on a Talking Heads quality, a slightly repetitive narrator-style, delivering a tale straight on without fully acknowledging and taking advantage of the three-sided audience present at the Donmar (a failing also notable in Force Majeure).

Bhattacharyya, Kaur Bhatti, Din and Wood’s play eventually builds to a pathos-filled conclusion that has darker undertones, looking at the shame of collaboration, the misdirection of youth and considering alternative reasons for the long held silence – shame. For the journalist lead character it is a moment of revelation and understanding that moves her deeply but there is greater potential here for impact than the current draft offers. While it is admirable to shy away from the dry ‘facts’ of the Partition, to step away from the official line and present an alternative experience, to give greater meaning to Silence, the audience does need some of that shape in order to understand Britain’s decision to withdraw at that moment, the reason for commuting their exit strategy to just 10 months and why drawing a random line in the sand creating two separate countries and 75-years of contention.

Bhattacharyya, Kaur Bhatti, Din and Wood are incredibly fair and balanced in the presentation of these stories, giving equal weight to different Indian communities, to those who were there and their heirs who felt the weight of their silence on another continent as well as to different religious perspectives. The writers seem equally open to the idea that the British were incompetent or thoughtless in their withdrawal and not necessarily malicious, even allowing one participant to rue their departure when the country is left in chaos. It never for a moment divests Britain of the responsibility for the human and political cost of Partition but it does grapple with the concept of a contemporary British-Indian identity in which Partition should have a greater centrality.

Performed by Renu Brindle, Sujaya Dasgupta, Bhasker Patel, Jay Saighal, Rehan Sheikh, Martin Turner, Somi De Souza, Anil Goutam and Nimmi Harasgama as the journalist, the actors take on multiple characters and lives within the different scenarios in what is a cleverly managed ensemble piece. But while there are so many voices represented in a play that explores the widespread impacts and effects of Indian Partition on modern Britain, it needs some exposition on how and why those things happened in the last days of the Raj which, in the long silence that followed, remain unspoken still.

Silence is at the Donmar Warehouse until 17 September with tickets from £10. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog.

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