The week in theatre: King Hedley II; Rutherford and Son; The Starry Messenger – review

Royal Theatre Stratford East; Lyttelton; Wyndham’s, London
Lenny Henry and Aaron Pierre are supercharged in August Wilson’s epic while Roger Allam excels as a stern Edwardian patriarch

August Wilson had a mighty project as a playwright. In a series of 10 plays he set out to chart the inner and outer experience of 20th-century African Americans decade by decade, plaiting together documentary and dream life. The result is vaulting, inspiring and uneven. There are duff stretches but also scenes as electric as anything in the theatre of the last 100 years.

Nadia Fall’s strongly cast production of King Hedley II makes this richly apparent. Lenny Henry scissors his way across the stage as a conman, lethally vivid in a white suit. Aaron Pierre is magnetic as the young man struggling to make a life after jail: with a gun in his pocket and a slashed face, he muscles his way against the air as if it were another enemy. Martina Laird sings of red sails in the sunset as if they were stitched with her blood. These characters are always near to losing everything.

London in 2019 does not seem far removed from Wilson’s plot of knives and guns and desperation set in 1980s Pittsburgh. Yet the success of his play reaches beyond contemporary echoes. History is at every character’s elbow. A death described early in King Hedley II is of Ester, a former slave and the main character in Wilson’s Gem of the Ocean.

Ester was more than 300 years old. Wilson’s dramatic cycle includes more than realism. Between scenes lightning sizzles as if to presage apocalypse. A Bible-basher circles the action roaring prophecy. Oh God, I felt, am I going to have to hold my breathe in awe? False alarm. His speech is also street: “God’s a bad motherfucker.” The great roll of the play allows for buoyancy, comic display – and arresting lines. “I might,” says Pierre, recounting a wild, improbable night-haunting, “have dreamt it because it’s true.”

Domestic drama is often accused of lacking ambition (as if width rather than depth were a measure), and plays by women have more readily been thought of as merely domestic. Rutherford and Son, Githa Sowerby’s glowering, penetrating study of patriarchal capitalism, was acclaimed when first performed in 1912 (with the writer’s sex disguised as “KG Sowerby”), then for years undervalued. Not any more. Productions are no longer rare: more à point.

Roger Allam and Justine Mitchell in Rutherford and Son.
Roger Allam and Justine Mitchell in Rutherford and Son. Photograph: Johan Persson

Polly Findlay’s staging is meticulous but overemphatic. The power of the play is in its combination of dramatic action – a secret affair, theft, people being turned from their homes – and understatement: “Such doings,” mumbles one grim old biddy. Roger Allam catches this perfectly as the all-dominating Dad. It would be so easy simply to monsterise Rutherford, as he barks at his daughter to take off his shoes. Allam convinces more subtly: he crushes by self-absorbed indifference while also suggesting a mighty male dedication to work. Seeming hardly to exert himself (he closes off a conversation by putting on his specs), he treats his family as if they were faulty bits of machinery: “No good for my purpose,” he says of one of his sons.

Justine Mitchell plays the down-beaten (that’s to say unmarried) daughter, who has a secret life, with a steady frankness; sulkiness flashing into passion. She makes you feel that she has been seized up by circumstances. Both seem part of Lizzie Clachan’s clever design, which is a tumult of naturalism, an impressive display of smothering by acquisition. Newel post, grandfather clock, carpet-style tablecloth, dark wood, autumn shades and – a reminder of the factory that supports all this – a tall panel of glass made up of lime and yellow squares.

Yet Findlay doesn’t leave the play sufficiently to unfold. There are curtains of wuthering rain and long intervals of keening song. No mistaking that we are in the north. No mistaking that things are tough. It is a necessarily sober evening – but unnecessarily short on dynamism.

I did not think The Starry Messenger could recover from the lassitude of its early scenes. There is Matthew Broderick, astronomy lecturer, arms dangling, face unmoving, looking as if he had been invaded by aliens. There is, as an automatic figure of fun, a middle-aged, unfashionable woman who can’t follow the basic rules of science. There is a wincing double entendre setting up a love affair. And a floundering sequence in which Elizabeth McGovern – underwritten as Broderick’s often baffled wife – goes earnestly through the minute complications of her diary as if the tedium and hubby’s blank response were a hoot. All played out on a set by Chiara Stevenson – skinny, revolving, capped by a great dome of stars – which over-proclaims the littleness of all human endeavour.

Well, you should never judge a play halfway through. Kenneth Lonergan’s plot and Sam Yates’s production pick up pace when the lovely breath of fresh (though not unruffled) air that is Rosalind Eleazar takes centre stage. Falling for her, Broderick begins to look not so much inert as understated. Jim Norton puts in a delicate, wry cameo in a bit of plotting that never looks more than parenthetical. And there is a very funny turn from Sid Sagar as the student gleaming with evangelical zeal as he fulfils his self-appointed task of marking Broderick as his teacher: “Your jokes are like, so-so.” He might have been assessing Lonergan’s play.

Matthew Broderick as Mark in Starry Messenger.
Matthew Broderick in Starry Messenger. Photograph: Marc Brenner

Star ratings (out of five)
King Hedley II
Rutherford and Son ★★★
The Starry Messenger ★★★

King Hedley II is at the Theatre Royal Stratford East, London, until 15 June

Rutherford and Son is at the Lyttelton, National Theatre, London, until 3 August

The Starry Messenger is at Wyndham’s, London, until 10 August


Susannah Clapp

The GuardianTramp

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