The Convert

The Convert by Danai Gurira

Young Vic / directed by Ola Ince

Seen on December 28, 2018

Score: 3.5 / 5

The Convert takes us to colonial Zimbabwe in 1896, where Jekesai-turned-Esther, a young and impressionable woman, gradually embraces Christianity at the behest of a devout Catholic priest, but only to discover tragically that the colour of her skin and her allegiance to her community will have to drive a wedge between her newfound faith and the religion imposed upon her. While the play touches on a wide range of problems inherent in Africa’s colonial history, including those about language, culture, religion, and race, the way it does so is not particularly well-organised. It is not until the final moments of Act Two that the play’s real tension, along with its central thematic interest, rears its head in earnest, and the exquisitely powerful Act Three far surpasses the preceding acts in allowing the real torments of the story to take centre stage.

Much of what makes this final act so shattering is its elegantly developing discourse on race, especially in relation to the questions it asks of institutionalised religion and personal faith. I could make the bold claim that this act, by itself, could have been the core pillar of a much tidier play. Of course, the first two acts do have several scenes that are both dramaturgically necessary and situationally engaging, but their contributions to the thematic arc of the play are not consistent. As such, the three-hour runtime of the play is not justified: with some necessary pruning, this could have been a more formidable, two-act piece.

Letitia Wright’s and Luyanda Unati Lewis-Nyawo’s performances are the beating heart of this production. It is almost impossible to imagine someone else in the role of Jekesai; Wright has more than the requisite emotional and physical range to do justice to the many nuances of her character. As for Lewis-Nyawo, not only is her character, Prudence, one of the most fascinating and provocative aspects of the entire work, but she embodies Prudence’s fierce “wokeness” with admirable force and refinement. The rest of the cast are satisfying in their performances, but it is worth noting that Paapa Essiedu could have been considerably more interrogative and multifaceted with a character like Chilford.

Ola Ince’s direction boasts handsome achievements in pacing and transitions, but her blocking is not always suitable for an in-the-round staging, and her dynamic use of the semi-transparent walls lacks an underlying logic. I loved the way the centre stage was used in conjunction with the four diagonal entrances, and how our attention was regularly directed to the spatial (as well as cultural and psychological) peripheries of the story, but the space within the central square could have been utilised more dynamically.

Nonetheless, Naomi Dawnson’s semi-realist set deserves acclaim for providing the production with such a versatile and neat playing field. Bruno Poet’s thoughtfully emphatic lighting and Max Perryment’s brilliant sound design are part and parcel of what carries this production forward, downplaying, or perhaps even forestalling, our sensitiveness to the play’s blemishes. The Convert might be an imperfect and overlong play, but thanks to such impressive design elements and a generally well-armed cast, it sure has some truly outstanding moments of deep tenderness and goosebump-inducing pathos.

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The Cane

The Cane by Mark Ravenhill

The Royal Court Theatre / directed by Vicky Featherstone

Seen on December 27, 2018

Score: 4.5/5

Ravenhill’s new play is the haunting exploration of a troubled family as it finds itself headed towards a belated confrontation and inevitable dissolution. It does this through the gradual disclosure of the personal and professional history of the father, an almost-retired teacher who, as the deputy head of his school, caned “several hundred” students for years. While much of the debate in the play might appear to revolve around the ethics of corporal punishment and institutionalised education, the real deal is the family itself—family in relation to (and as “caned” and disfigured by) patriarchal power and rage.

Consider the attic: it is important not only as a key component of the play’s setting, but also as an embodiment of all that has been stowed away—repressed, one might say—by the man who has had sole access to it (albeit only through the physical support of his wife). Chief among these is the titular cane itself, but the whole of Edward’s history is also there, be it sartorial or professional. No wonder that one of the final gestures of the play is to have Maureen, the mother, make her way into the attic, perhaps for the first time. Her departure is occasioned by despair, fear, and even denial, but at least she will be safe, like her daughter, by the time Edward’s world—and head?—is smashed into smithereens in an act of collective revenge.

The whole cast deliver terrific, carefully calculated performances: Alun Armstrong’s reason-clad but tyrannical Edward, Maggie Steed’s gradually unhinged Maureen, and Nicola Walker’s elegantly seething and forthright-but-PC Anna come together to create a formidable triangle of filial resentment and Pinteresque terror.

Chloe Lamford’s seemingly simple but masterfully claustrophobic set estranges the realism of this family drama with symbolically charged details: an overly high ceiling, a semi-demolished and off-scale staircase, and only a single chair in what is supposed to be a living room. The visual composition itself is replete with sombre suggestions as to what might have led to such careless disintegration, both in the house and among its inhabitants, past and present. And as the ceiling becomes complicit in intensifying the pressures that the play exerts on its characters, the world of Vicky Featherstone’s production makes official—and concrete—its alliance to the uncanny.

Featherstone’s direction injects a considerable amount of unnerving and congealing tension into a text that might have felt a bit shaky in a less skilful production. The only weakness—and it is a minor one—is that the action of the play is not continuous and skips past several minutes in a few moments of transition. These transitions chip away at the growing power of the story more than they add to its temporal logic. It would have been easy to turn this work into an uninterrupted whole that unfolds in real time, and the result would have been even more affecting. Yet despite this structural bump in the road, this is an altogether compact, smart, and disturbing piece.

The Tell-Tale Heart

The Tell-Tale Heart by Anthony Neilson, based on the short story by Edgar Allan Poe

National Theatre / directed by Anthony Neilson

Seen on December 26, 2018

Score: 3/5

Edgar Allan Poe’s famed short story “The Tell-Tale Heart” can send chills down one’s spine, but Anthony Neilson’s new play, based on and named after the selfsame work, would rather punctuate, or even defer, the dramatic equivalent of such experience with some giggles and laughter. Sure, Poe’s cast of loosely drawn but haunting characters—a murderous tenant, a slaughtered landlord, and police officers—find their onstage correspondences, but Neilson’s project is not really one of adaptation or deconstruction (à la, say, Robert Icke). Rather, Poe’s text provides the narrative inspiration for Neilson’s play and permeates it in its own right, as a work of literature that gets referred to by the characters. Poe’s unnamed characters and elusively crisp exposition give way to a more concretely realised and unabashedly humorous story, but what starts out as realistic soon morphs into the surreal. Even though the result is a hearty serving of theatrical reflexivity, including a Pirandellian overlay of multiple planes of reality, it fails to add up to a perfect whole.

The piece gains much from the fine performances of all three actors, but the rapid succession of gory surprises and scenic trickery—all very impressive technical achievements—can do only so much to sustain the play with the pace that it needs but never fully attains. Especially in the second act, which sets store more by mood than by plot, some moments drag on, not because they are not engaging, but because their relation to the overall architecture of the work remains unsatisfyingly unclear. Neilson likes his twists and turns (and there are quite a few of them here), but even the most ambitious one, which comes just when you think the play is over, does not soar to a height that can make us ignore the dramaturgical weaknesses of the work. Largely thanks to Andrzej Goulding’s meticulously designed projections and many an odd prop, the stage becomes a visual playground, where the grotesque reigns supreme, continually messing with us. But much of this is flashy (or bloody) window dressing for a play that does not take us to a particularly deep place.

Neilson deserves applause for blurring the line between the gruesome and the funny in a number of ways; the play’s relentless flirtation with comedy is perhaps one of its strongest aspects. One could go so far as to suggest that this is chiefly a parody masquerading as a horror story. Yet when all is said and done, and whatever can be admired is admired, the play’s “hideous heart” does not beat as evenly as it should.