It is a focus on international theatre traditions for the newly reopened Almeida Theatre with a two-week festival dedicated to socially distanced rehearsed readings of plays selected for their global perspective. Six Artists in Search of a Play was a series that, from the comfort of the auditorium, celebrated different approaches to theatremaking, taking the audience around the world in one of the most inclusive theatre offerings so far including nineteenth-century Eastern Europe to China, Ancient Greece and Nigeria. The final two pieces travel to India with Annie Zaidi and to the incendiary racial divide of 1960s Britain. Whether any of these plays will result in a longer run remains to be seen and while a one-night only try-out is rare given the usual demands on the space, the directors, cast and crew have grasped the opportunity created by the pandemic for a cost-effective and all too rare live audience reading.
The alternative appeal of the final two plays is an interesting consideration and the domestic setting of Zaidi’s Name, Place, Animal, Thing makes for a stark contrast with the firebrand nature of Vanessa Walters’s Michael X, both plays originally written around the same time. Zaidi’s 100-minute story, directed by Atri Banerjee, focuses on women escaping unfortunate marriages and the small-scale power dynamics within the families they return to. What is ostensibly a narrative driven by and existing within social and political structures created by men means women are cast solely in the roles of wife, servant and victim often at the same time.
Name, Place, Animal, Thing
Zaidi’s 2009 award-winning story almost entirely emphasises the needs and experiences of women – women who need the freedom to fail, to reconsider and to try alternative paths. Staged by Banerjee in two gender-defined rows, female actors are placed on the front row and the majority of the action revolves around their conversations as niece/servant Nancy returns rapidly from an ill-conceived union to the home of her aunt/employer whose friend and neighbour regular drops by to cast aspersions. What drives Nancy’s decision to leave her husband within days of their marriage is subtly alluded to, a combination of poverty, incompatibility, disillusion and status that conceal a wealth of intricate motives that sit in the background of the play including the nature of the urban-rural divide in India, how class shapes the opportunities available to younger women and the strength of family ties in the aftermath of tragedy and grief.
When men appear in this fascinating story, they create lane-changing momentum in the pace and direction of the play and Nancy’s life. Her severe Uncle Malik represents the established social order, the old world that seeks to confine Nancy within a religious and political structure that sees marriage as the ultimate outcome for a woman. Malik’s personality and belief in his absolute righteousness defines the play, motoring the action that, prior to and during this story, shape his family so completely – especially the haunting presence of his daughter lost shortly before Nancy took the same treacherous path.
But other men provide direction as well, not least Nancy’s ineffectual rubbish collector husband who appears more than once to demand the return of his wife as property and to plead his cause, while a clothing salesman’s alluring patter charms the homely women of the play in a variety of ways. What is clear is that none of these men have the best interests of the womenfolk in mind and, young or old, these men prioritise their own happiness and sense of propriety such as it is with fateful effects.
Another fascinating theme is the power of a name – a link to the childhood game of the title – and its ability to encapsulate different forms of familial, religious, social and individual identities. It is significant that Nancy is the third such name she is given and, as the character slowly rebels against the status quo, she begins to reject the monikers chosen for her by one group or another. Her preferences notably shift as the story unfolds and at various times she refuses to respond to anything but the name given to her by her husband, her employer-protectors, father and by her changing faith. While this often plays-out to comic effect, the result is a crisis of identity for a young woman constantly defined by external factors and through the events of Name, Place, Animal, Thing comes to understand the strength and independence in her own womanhood and ability to define her own future.
The Almeida gathered a very fine cast and as a rehearsed reading, stage directions were read allowed by Anushka Chakravarti creating a vivd setting in the minds of the audience suggesting the respectable Middle Class apartment block above the city. Chakravarti also plays the ghostly presence of the Malik’s lost daughter whose memory stands between the couple and overshadows Nancy’s experience with them. Saroja-Lily Ratnavel as Nancy has a quiet everywoman quality, a maid who in some ways knows her place, is even grateful for it, but fights cleverly for her own position until it destabilises the household. Ratnavel’s unassuming nature has an understated power in which she is both unafraid to leave the comfortable position to establish her own life, but is equally determined to return when it doesn’t suit her.
Gravitas was added by Zubin Varla and Nina Wadia as the domineering but ultimately devoted matriarch, a couple in unity and conflict whose solidarity is challenged by the loss of their daughter and emotional withholding that creates waves when parallel events with Nancy cause those long-buried feelings to rush to the surface. The portrait of the perfect marriage that they represent and wishes for the next generation unravels with both Varla and Wadia on superb form finding the balance between comedy and pathos. A full revival of Name, Place, Animal,Thing promises much and Zaidi’s domestic tale becomes a potent debate about modernity and enfranchisement.
While structurally very different, Walters’s drama shares Zaidi’s interest in how disillusion and disappointment in a restrictive and unwelcoming society builds resistance within the individual, and while the outlet is not the same, both Nancy in Name, Place, Animal, Thing and Michael de Freitas who earns the title Michael X become activists against the limitations imposed on them by external forces – Nancy by her small but significant acts of rebellion and Michael by political organisation and protest. Selected for this performance by Director Cherrelle Skeete, Walters’s play explores Caribbean Black British identity in the 1960s, a rallying cry for change that has considerable contemporary resonance.
Written as a single monologue, originally performed by Clint Dyer, in which the character of Michael delivers a rousing speech to a politicised community audience, Skeete redefines this 55-minute play using three actors sharing the title role. It is a decision that adds considerably to the dynamism of this rehearsed reading, emphasising the changing pace and currents in Walters’s writing, creating movement and flow around the stage while underscoring the universality of the central character, that his experience, heritage, anger and pain is representative of the wider Caribbean community in the last 50 years.
Michael X does two quite interesting things simultaneously; first, it charts the arrival of the younger man in the UK, reflecting quite vividly on the warm and vibrant Trinidadian lifestyle that Michael left behind and contrasts with the damp unwelcoming streets of Britain. But Walters also quite carefully and amusingly depicts the infusion of British life, culture and mannerisms through that Caribbean context, that being part of the the UK, of it being an aspirational way of life is really potent in building the expectations of those who considered themselves lucky enough to return to the ‘motherland’
How this rebounds through Michael’s speech is very meaningful, and not at all straightforward – despite a critical fondness for Trinidad this idea of Britishness and its weaponisation emerges from the contextual details of his life within which the play is framed. Second, there is a real skill in the way that Walters reconstructs his oratorical skills using the anecdotes and examples to slowly warm the audience to the political subtext which builds to a point of outrage, even a call to arms as it ends. The comparison with Mark Antony’s funeral speech in Julius Caesar springs to mind, as Michael says one thing but means or implies another until he can be more candid.
There are declarations of peaceable intent, of good will and belief in the possibility of trust and mutual understanding but slowly Walters introduces levels of complexity that turns this speech into a declaration of war – one that ends with a promise that echoes Enoch Powell in promising blood running in the streets. How Walters aligns these two interlocking narratives is very smart, drawing on her idea that violence hides behind British politeness but letting her character employ the same rhetorical technique to win his audience to the cause – while never shying away from his own still controversial embrace of white celebrity and the establishment in listing his many benefactors.
Performed by Martina Laird, Tomi Ogbaro and Mika Onyx, there is real power in the developing arguments within the play as the three actors move around one another, coming forward to speak their assigned passages of the text and representing the different sides of Michael’s character, of the multi-faceted nature of Caribbean-British communities and the many arms of protest, demonstration and even revolution. The gender-neutral casting also reflects the points that Skeete wants to make about intersectionality within the play’s debates and its continued relevance to the experience of current generations and there was a real energy in the presentation of this rehearsed reading that connected the audience to Michael’s 1965 setting, to Waters’s 2008 publication and to the Almeida in 2021.
The international focus of Six Artists in Search of a Play has been a valuable one and a timely reminder that these stories are still too rarely seen on UK stages despite large resident communities. Public rehearsed readings are a rarity these days but may offer alternative ways for audiences to engage with theatres, to assess the development of newly commissioned work as well as revivals of a broader number of productions. A commitment to fully staging a few of the works in this mini-season in the future should be the result of this initiative, giving UK audiences more opportunity to engage with global theatre traditions and understand how our own diverse communities interact.
Name, Place Animal Thing was staged on 2 June and Malcolm X was performed on 5 June as part of the Six Artists in Search of a Play season at the Almeida Theatre. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog.