Saturday 25 April 2015

Rolling Stone – Royal Exchange, Manchester

[seen in preview 23/04/14]

I last saw Fiston Barek on stage in 2010 in a play called Love the Sinner at the NT, in which he played the gay, African lover of an Englishman in a play exploring the persecution of homosexuals in Africa. I remember it as one of the worst-written plays I have ever seen.
In 2015 at the Royal Exchange, Fiston Barek is playing Dembe, the gay, African lover of a Northern Irishman. Rolling Stone is a play exploring the persecution of homosexuals in Africa, and that, mercifully, is where the similarities end.

Where Love the Sinner was condescending to the point of racism, Chris Urch’s Bruntwood Prize play corrects all its major faults. Instead of being a play about white people in England worrying about Africa, it’s a play set in Africa with an almost entirely black cast (the exception is the token British voice – the mixed-race Northern Irish/Ugandan Sam played by Robert Gilbert (Vronsky in Ellen McDougall’s brilliant Anna Karenina, with which Rolling Stone plays in Rep.)). But more importantly, it’s only *about* the persecution of homosexuals in contemporary Uganda in much the same way that The Crucible is *about* the persecution of Witches in 1700s America.  That is to say, this is a story about characters rather than a spider diagram exploring abstract concepts.

In fact, the Miller comparison feels crucial. As well as clear parallels with the The Crucible, there’s also a fair amount of A View From The Bridge thrown in for good measure – indeed, it was in Rolling Stone that I realised how central to both Miller plays accusations made from within tight-knit communties against other members of the community were. Rolling Stone, in fact draws both plays together, reminding us that it doesn’t matter if the accusations are true (AVFTB) or false (TC) when they’re made within an unjust system.

What’s refreshing about Urch’s approach is that his play treats the situation in Uganda as a given. It’s not a play of white-Western hand-wringing. It doesn’t explore *why* Uganda has such particularly toxic laws against homosexuality: a debated death-penalty for homosexuals, four years imprisonment for anyone not reporting suspected homosexuals, and the titular newspaper, The Rolling Stone, publishing names, addresses and photographs of men accused of homosexuality, leading to some being publicly murdered, one man set on fire in the street watched by a crowd. Even Sam (interestingly self-identifying as British, but calling his hometown Derry), is secondar. All this is good. And, yes, you can see why the play was a Bruntwood finalist. It’s very tightly constructed. Through the tight-knit inter-relationships of just six characters: Dembe’s older brother Joe (Sule Rimi) and twin sister Wummie (Faith Omole); Naome (Ony Uhiara), who has been mute for six months; and her mother, Mama Kyeyune (Donna Berlin), friend and supported of Joe, who is also the local pastor.

From this web of interrelationships alone, you can almost feel the arc of the tragedy that’s going to unfold, with all the inexorability of an Ibsen. I will admit, the play hadn’t really captured my imagination by the interval. A lot of the work done by the first half comes to fruition in the second, but while those seeds are invisibly being sown, there isn’t so much by the way of conflict. Or rather, what conflict there is, superficially rarely seems to rise beyond tensions within Dembe and Sam’s hidden relationship and between Dembe and the rest of his family.

Similarly, while McDougall’s direction and Joanna Scotcher’s design both serve the text admirably, I can’t help wishing that a few more of the sculptural fireworks in Anna Karenina’s design and dramaturgy had also been deployed here. Plainly I don’t mind “straight” productions of plays (See: Little Voice most recently), but the brilliantly municipal plain blue carpet here almost sucks art out of the air (as such carpets tend to). It’s perfect design, even while it’s deeply dispiriting to look at.

As pretty much everyone who knows me said beforehand “It’s not really your kind of play”. But I’m always up for expanding my range a bit, and I think I can say that while, no, it’s not an example of my exact favourite sort of thing, I do think it’s quite a good one of the sort of thing it is. It should also maybe be noted that this production was apparently stood up from scratch in two and a half weeks (as was Little Voice, apparently).

My favourite moment of the show was shortly after it finished, however. I was wandering out the the Royal Exchange for a cigarette, after a Thursday matinee almost exclusively peopled with old white folks. The bloke in front of me was expressing his outrage and I mentally rolled my eyes in expectation at the probable homophobic, UKIPy nonsense I was about to hear.

“It’s the bloody injustice of it that really makes me sick,” he practically shouted.

Really loved that.


D said...

Great review- probably not my 'thing' either really, but I saw Land Of Our Fathers and enjoyed it so would be interested in seeing this too if it ever comes southbound.

One thing though regarding the Derry/British comment- in my experience, pretty much everyone except for the most zealous unionists call Londonderry simply Derry. My exes family were all from Derry, I knew them pretty well and visited quite a bit. They saw themselves as British, but rolled their eyes at anyone who said Londonderry. Majority of people I met elsewhere in NI called it Derry too.

Sarah said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Sarah said...

Sorry, typo!

I just said that actually I'm fairly sure you've misremembered and the Irish guy got really quite cross at being called British. But perhaps it's me misremembering.

(lovely to see you!)

Andrew Haydon said...

Re: the Derry thing -- Aha. Fair enough.

Re: "being called British" -- criminal that I only saw it three days ago and can't remember details, but didn't he self-describe as British and then take the piss out of himself for doing so?