The Theatreguide.London Review
Comes Home From The Wars (Parts 1, 2 and 3)
Royal Court Theatre Autumn 2016
Quite probably the best play of the year, Suzan-Lori Parks's drama tackles very big subjects while never losing sight of the intimate and involving human experiences at its core.
It is epic in scope, perhaps (at just under three hours) a bit overlong, but will hold you from start to finish and leave you thinking and feeling for long afterwards.
The setting of the play, which premiered in New York in 2014, is the American South during the Civil War. A slave is given the promise of freedom if he joins his owner in the Confederate army, and thus finds himself fighting against the people fighting to free him.
It is a resonant metaphor worthy of August Wilson, and its ironies carry through the entire play, along with multi-levelled explorations of the meanings and implications of freedom.
And yet that is not solely or even mainly what the play is about, because within that larger topic lie a string of questions about loyalty and betrayal.
Hero, the slave, is drawn to follow his owner not just by the promise of freedom but by a real honour-based feeling of loyalty to the man, the same emotion that had earlier led him to betray a fellow slave who had been planning to escape.
While Hero is away, that former friend will be tempted to steal his wife, who will struggle to remain loyal to her absent husband. In the war Hero's owner-commander will capture a Yankee soldier, with whom Hero will recognise a lot in common, finding another dilemma of divided loyalties.
There are still further issues of conflicting or violated values in the course of the play – in one of the most powerful sequences the Confederate commander demonstrates how very easy it is to guide the Union soldier into thinking of the black man as a commodity to be bought and sold.
Each episode forces us to recognise that even within the context of what appears to be the clearest of all moral issues, that of slavery, there are still difficult-to-resolve complications.
There is still more. Given the immensely significant opportunity to reject his slave name and choose his own, Hero calls himself Ulysses. His loyal wife is named Penny, the love-rival slave is named Homer, and there is even a dog named Odyssey.
Father Comes Home From The Wars is not a scene-by-scene adaptation of The Odyssey, but playwright Parks uses these echoes, along with a heightened but never artificial prose-poetry, to invest the play with a heroic and epic quality, to say that not only are big issues involved but that these people's lives matter.
And the play does work on the personal and human level. Actor Steve Toussaint makes Hero/Ulysses a complex and rounded character, capable of surprising us and himself with his unexpected virtues and failings while remaining a consistent, believable and sympathetic figure.
Penny (Nadine Marshall), Homer (Jimmy Akingbola), the owner-officer (John Stahl) and the Yankee soldier (Tom Bateman) could each have been merely stock stereotypes, but in each case the combination of playwright, director Jo Bonney and the individual actors makes each of the characters rounded and real.
As I suggested, the play is long, and individual scenes – most notably that involving the Union soldier – tend to go on after having made their points, threatening to weaken their effect through dissipating it.
But if the play might have been even better with twenty minutes or so trimmed from it, as it stands it is the largest, most ambitious – and most successful in achieving its ambitions – and most powerful new drama of a year that has only a few months left to try to top it.
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