The Theatreguide.London Review
Statement of Regret
Cottesloe Theatre Autumn-Winter 2007-2008
Kwame Kwei-Armah's new play is, on one level, an analysis of relations within the British Afro-Caribbean community, specifically conflicts and tensions between Africans and Caribbeans, and what he has to say may indeed be insightful.
On another level it is the very human story of a strong man losing his powers, exposing both the pathos of his situation and the ugliness it inspires in those around him.
It is almost inevitable that you will find one side of the play more interesting and involving than the other, and it is particularly regrettable that the two stories don't support and enrich each other but actually conflict, so that the strength of either weakens the other.
The play is set in a black think tank, accustomed to producing studies and reports supporting, for example, the case for financial reparations for descendants of slaves. But the institute has lost its edge, grant money is shrinking, and they're looking for a new focus that will make them timely again.
The internal debate amongst the staff is interesting, but the boss decides, for reasons of his own, to take them in a particularly dangerous direction, limiting themselves entirely to the concerns of the Caribbean community, even at the risk of neglecting and even alienating Africans.
He finds himself saying things that white racists, the Daily Mail and the National Front can support and exploit, leading to even further debate and soul-searching within the institute.
That's a play about ideas, and as such it doesn't escape the trap of sacrificing drama to thesis, with action stopped dead for discussion and characters turned into mouthpieces for the author or single-dimensional figureheads for debating positions.
The human drama exists in parallel to, and almost entirely apart from the theoretical. The boss is an alcoholic and philanderer who seems to be in the early stages of dementia.
It is certainly true that his decision to address only Caribbean issues is generated less by politics or philosophy than by his own passions and complicated emotional ties both to his dead Caribbean father and his very alive African wife.
And the responses of those around him, ranging from despair and concern to eagerness to exploit his weakness,are also generated more by personal passions, positive and negative.
The two halves of the play could, in theory, work together, but in this case they don't.
Every time the playwright raises a serious question about Afro-Caribbean relations, the fact that the character speaking it has a hidden agenda or may be losing his mind deflects any serious consideration of the issue.
Every time the boss or any of the other characters has a human moment that might evoke our concern or empathy, the play jumps into debating mode, taking away his reality.
If the play is about a man with the possibly wrong-headed courage to speak the unspeakable just to get it on the table, then the fact that he is morally and mentally unfit makes it hard to take his challenge seriously.
If the play is about the horror of a King Lear watching his own powers wane, then repeatedly deflecting our attention to matters of theoretical politics is a mistake.
We are left with two potentially engrossing half-plays fighting for the stage, to the detriment of both.
Director Jeremy Herrin is unable to make the two pieces co-exist without conflict, so that the play is a collection of moments, from either half, that briefly work before being neutralised by the other. And much the same is true of the performances, the cast struggling to make brief outbursts of human characterisations connect to other moments as mouthpieces for debate.
Don Warrington as the fading boss has the most difficult job, trying to make sense of a man whose ideas are to be taken seriously even as his reasons for expressing them are repeatedly undercut.
Colin McFarlane as an old friend trying to stay loyal is generally strongest in the human scenes, while Chu Omambala, Javone Prince and Clifford Samuel as Young Turks of various stripes drawn into the power vacuum function best in the political debates.
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