Hooray, Henry! Although nobody actually goes so far as to shout that out, one nonetheless senses a great deal of audience goodwill towards Lenny Henry as he takes to the stage in Theatre Royal Bath’s touring revival of August Wilson’s Fences. Having proved his Shakespearean chops in a (mostly) well-received Northern Broadsides Othello in 2009 and last year as Antipholus of Syracuse in the NT’s The Comedy of Errors, Henry now turns to the contemporary American theatre for his next challenge, taking on the role of the flawed patriarch Troy Maxson (first played on Broadway by James Earl Jones, no less) in Paulette Randall’s production of Wilson’s 1983 play. And – after a slightly shaky start in which he appears to be rushing through his lines with unseemly speed - Henry acquits himself admirably here, delivering a compelling performance that forcefully shows how an oppressed man – bluff and blinkered yet capable of tenderness - might become an oppressor of sorts in his own household. It’s not long before you don’t see Henry in the role at all; you just experience the tensions and emotions of the character.
Fences, of course, forms part of Wilson’s Pittsburgh cycle of plays - this one covering the late 1950s into the mid-60s – and a description of the piece as an African-American variant on Death of a Salesman sounds horribly reductive. But it’s not an entirely inaccurate description for this play, which, like Miller’s work, is much concerned with generational legacy and father-son conflict, and whose protagonist is thwarted by a combination of social circumstances and personal flaws. (There's even an intentional echo in the characters' names perhaps: Loman becomes Maxson.)
Troy is a 53-year-old municipal garbage collector who was, in his youth, a star baseball player, a career that he claims was curtailed due to the colour bar. The bitterness of that deferred dream still causes tension, and affects Troy’s relationship with his two sons. Lyons (Peter Bankole) is a musician whose gigs Troy refuses to attend, while the teenage Cory (Ashley Zhangazha) is a talented football player who has the chance of a college education, an opportunity that Troy is entirely reluctant to encourage. Troy’s relationship with his good-humoured, peace-keeping wife Rose (Tanya Moodie) seems strong but a revelation of adultery brings further strife to the Maxson household.
Wilson’s writing has its flaws: it can be exposition-heavy, sentimental, and over-obvious in its symbolism and allusions. (Example: a character named Gabriel wields a trumpet.) At its strongest, though, this family drama goes straight to the heart, fleshing out compelling character histories in a distinctive idiom that balances naturalism with heightened, poetic touches. And Randall’s production, which benefits from both an excellent house-and-porch design by Libby Watson and from Delroy Murray’s fine bluesy score, is attuned to the rhythms of Wilson’s language and encourages sympathy for the play’s characters across the board.
Henry’s commanding turn is well-supported by deft work from the other cast members. That said, I found Tanya Moodie as Rose a tad problematic. Affecting in quieter moments, the actress tends to overpitch her more dramatic scenes, with the result that a couple of key reactions feel fake. But there are performances of exceptional naturalness from Bankole and Zhangazha as the sons, from Terence Maynard as Troy’s brain-damaged brother (who provides the play with its final unexpected flourish) and from Colin McFarlane as Troy’s best buddy Bono. A central scene in which Troy and Bono reminisce about their pasts shows Wilson’s writing at its very best, creating an absorbing and moving moment of shared intimacy that’s illuminated with insight and understanding by Randall’s elegant production.
Touring to: Marlborough Gate (18 March), Oxford Playhouse (25th March), Theatre Cymru, (1st April), Malvern Theatre (8th April), Cambridge Arts Theatre (15th April).
Reviewed for British Theatre Guide.