The Theatreguide.London Review
In March 2020 the covid-19 epidemic
closure of all British theatres. Some companies adapted by putting
archive recordings of past productions online, others by streaming new
shows. Until things return to normal we review the experience of
watching live theatre
Barber Shop Chronicles
National Theatre At Home and YouTube Spring 2020
This co-production of
the National Theatre, Fuel and Leeds Playhouse played in the
National's Dorfman Theatre in 2019 before a national and world tour
and was recorded for the National Theatre Live series. It is a
fast-moving, high-energy piecemeal look at African men relaxing and
thereby exposing things about themselves that might otherwise remain
Playwright Inua Ellams
moves the action through about a dozen
scenes set in a half-dozen or so barber shops in London and several
African countries. In each the barbers, customers and general
hanging-around-ers do what men in friendly groups do – joke,
gossip, trade gentle insults, debate politics, watch football, and
just occasionally get serious.
The attractiveness and
power of the
play lie largely in these seemingly shapeless slices of life, and the
sense they convey of the immeasurable social value of such bonding
and time-killing. In an unforced way what they actually chat about
begins to take shapes that delve deeper into their lives.
race is one recurring topic, though not always in the terms and
contexts you might expect. Direct political debate has a particular
perspective, such as questioning whether Robert Mugabe's thoroughly
corrupt reign in Zimbabwe wound up doing more for black Africans than
Nelson Mandela's thoroughly honourable one did in South Africa.
couple of equally thought-provoking conversations are disguised as
being about linguistics, when one group suggest that Pidgin might be
a more legitimate African language than English, and when another
speculate on whether the evil power of the most common racist words
can ever be defused.
A little more
surprisingly, a recurring theme of
the various conversations is fathers and sons. More than one of the
men have bitter memories of abusive fathers, while more than one feel
alienated from their own sons.
The various threads are
brought together with the sense that a people without a past, a
diaspora far from home and a man without a father all share a loss
that makes moving forward difficult.
Under director Bijan Sheibani's guidance none of these serious moments is forced, as they all flow naturally out of the general chatter, and a cast of twelve, most doubling and redoubling roles, create instant and satisfyingly rounded characterisations.
Sheibani also sustains
a warm intimacy
with the audience through an in-the-round staging that puts the
action literally inches from the front rows, and maintains a high
energy level through choreographing the scene changes to music
ranging from traditional African to hip-hop.
Those last two qualities – the intimacy and the inter-scene energy – are probably the biggest losses in the recorded version, which can't help feeling a little removed from the event, despite the skilful cross-cutting among several cameras. More than some other recorded productions, watching Barber Shop Chronicles onscreen makes you wish you were there.
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