The Theatreguide.London Review
King Hedley II
Theatre Royal Stratford East Summer 2019
(Just to get it out of
the way, the main character of August Wilson's play is not royalty;
his first name, like his father's, is King. His best friend is named
This is a great flawed
Its greatness comes
despite its flaws, but let's just address the major flaw first. King
Hedley II is three-and-a-half hours long, and has no need to be.
dramatist August Wilson famously saw play writing as
process, and repeatedly had successive drafts of his plays staged in
workshops and preliminary productions as he worked on them, on the
way to their final texts.
And while the results,
in such plays as Ma
Rainey's Black Bottom, Fences and The Piano Lesson, are frequently
brilliant, there isn't a play among them that wouldn't have benefited
from one more rewrite.
In the case of King
Hedley II, trimming away
thirty or forty minutes could only have helped make what is great
about the play shine even more brightly.
An almost plotless look
the lives of a half-dozen urban African-Americans in the 1980s, King
Hedley II captures the experience of those who live in the narrow
no-man's-land between respectability and criminality.
King and Mister
have admirable plans to open a small business of their own, but are
not above using crime to raise the money. King dreams of wife and
family, but he killed a man in the past and went to prison for it, as
did the older man Elmore.
King woos Tonya while
Elmore woos King's
mother Ruby, but both women have had too much experience of men like
this to avoid some scepticism and hardness.
And so it is a play
yearning for more and better while being unable to keep from limiting
or sabotaging yourself. And both the playwright and the uniformly
admirable cast of this new production capture as much of this as the
ticking clock and waning audience endurance can allow.
performance that moves repeatedly between tightly checked emotion and
explosions of passion, Aaron Pierre conveys how dangerous –
especially to his own higher hopes – King can be, while also giving
him a recurring minor key of sadness, as if the man somehow sensed
failure from the start.
Lenny Henry captures all
the charm and
twinkle that make Elmore a successful gambler and ladies' man, and
also the gravity of one who has seen too much to be too optimistic.
Martina Laird's Ruby and Cherrelle Skeete's Tonya are the same woman
a generation apart – hopeful, romantic, fun-loving but of necessity
guarded and afraid of expecting too much.
Director Nadia Fall
deserves credit for guiding her cast to such nuanced
characterisations. But she must also be blamed for the production's
glacial pacing that makes it seem even longer than its three-plus
Scenes open and close
with long, slow fade-ins and fade-outs,
and passionate exchanges that would be both dramatic and believable
if played with step-on-each-other's-lines speed are too measured and
But oh, every half-hour
or so August Wilson displays his
mastery of a kind of stage poetry, particularly through the striving
of almost inarticulate characters, that takes your breath away.
Elmore and King are given monologues in which they explain what drove
them to their killings, how it actually felt to do it, and how the
act has affected their lives since, in scenes of absolute nakedness
for the characters (and challenges met and mastered for the actors).
And then both say or do
something that shows that for all the lessons
learned they really can't change who they are – creating moments
that bear comparison to the perfect model of such tragic irony,
Eugene O'Neill's Long Days Journey Into Night.
Earlier in the play
King's dreams of fatherhood and family are counterpointed with
Tonya's resistance to bringing a child into such a closed-ended
existence – 'I ain't raising a kid to have somebody shoot him.' -
and each character's struggles to say what they feel create a unique
and overpowering eloquence.
Moments like that really
sitting though some of the slower sections for.
Indeed, the chance of encountering moments like that are what we go to the theatre for.
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