Friday, 7 June 2013

Theatre Review: The Amen Corner (National Theatre, Olivier)

James Baldwin’s plays are so seldom seen on UK stages that the National Theatre’s decision to revive The Amen Corner is already a cause for celebration in itself. The even better news is that Rufus Norris’s take on the play proves spot-on in all departments: a lively, loving staging that’s funny, sad, soulful and tuneful by turns. All that being said, you wouldn’t call The Amen Corner Baldwin’s finest work: it’s sentimental, sometimes hackneyed in its plotting, and horribly patriarchal in its perspective. But Norris’s beautifully acted production sweeps along with such unabashed panache that you might not realise your objections to what the play’s saying until after the evening is through.

The action unfolds in two locations: the Harlem apartment occupied by Margaret Alexander (Marianne Jean-Baptiste), her son David (Eric Kofi Abrefa) and her sister Odessa (Sharon D. Clarke) and the humble corner church above it that serves as Margaret’s ministry. Margaret is a pastor given to fiery sermons and hardline pronouncements, a single mother who was abandoned by her hard-drinking jazz musician spouse, Luke. Or at least that’s the way Margaret tells it. For the surprise reappearance of the now ailing Luke (Lucian Msamati) results in a slightly different version of the couple’s past coming to light, one that spurs the already-conflicted David – who’s inherited his father’s musical gifts and resents his mother’s attempts to push him into the Church - into further rebellion and finds the congregation soon plotting a coup to get Margaret ousted.

Baldwin, whose stepfather was an authoritarian lay preacher and who himself served briefly as a child evangelist before renouncing the Church, has called Harlem a “southern community displaced in the streets of New York,” and that’s exactly what The Amen Corner presents: it’s a play with the savour of a particular time and place. That sense of community life - a society steeped in religious rhetoric yet with its own tensions, jealousies and power-plays, plus Big City temptations within reach - is expertly rendered in Norris’s production which is especially good at conveying the shift from respect to resentment in the congregation’s attitude towards Margaret and the glee with which they discover that this proud, pious woman who’s set herself above them is in fact “no better than the rest of us.”

Also striking is the insightful way in which the production shows music to be central to the community’s interaction, both inside and outside the church. Overseen by The Reverend Bazil Meade and MD Tim Sutton and dynamically delivered by the cast (with the London Community Gospel Choir – no less - on hand to help out) the selected hymns and spirituals range from the exhilaratingly rowdy to the achingly tender, and Norris makes them, by turns, centrepiece and accompaniment to the action in a way that feels totally natural. First impressions of Ian MacNeill’s cumbersome-looking, slightly murky split-level set - which, in typical MacNeill fashion, sits the interior of the church atop the family’s dwelling so that both are visible throughout - aren’t favourable. But gradually the design comes into its own, enabling the production to shift elegantly between domestic and public space and show the overlapping, counterpointing concerns of each. It’s apt – if a bit obvious - that when Luke slinks back into Margeret's life it’s with a cheeky ditty that puts a blasphemous spin on the hymn that the assembled company are reverently intoning in the kitchen.

What’s problematic about Baldwin’s conception of the piece is the way in which he places a complex, dynamic female character at the centre of the play – and then reveals her to be wrong about pretty much everything. The Amen Corner is dominated by vivid, well-drawn women characters, in fact, and yet it’s Luke’s perspective that ends up being endorsed, Baldwin loading the dice too heavily in his favour. However you slice it, the play is finally about Margaret getting a lesson in humility and coming around to her ex’s point-of-view. Luke can be a handful, we’re given to understand, and his hard-living  ways have taken their toll, but still he represents Truth, Life and Pleasure – all the things that Margaret, in fleeing into the Church, has cut herself of from. Renounce Christianity he might have done, but Baldwin is a highly moralistic writer and underpinning the cosy message that he presents us with here - that to “love the Lord is to love all His children … and never count the cost!” - is a less palatable one. It goes something along the lines of: “Girls, stand by your man.”

Notwithstanding, Baldwin’s language has suppleness and pungency line by line, and the actors’ pleasure in delivering the dialogue is palpable. Across the board, the ensemble excels. Marianne Jean-Baptiste, whom we might have thought lost to the US (Without A Trace, indeed), makes a simply sensational return to the London stage as Margaret, communicating every shade of pride and self-righteousness, of resentment, regret and sympathy, that the character goes through. Her opening sermon is a startler but the performance only deepens from there. Jean-Baptiste is an actress who, even on a stage as massive as the Olivier, makes you feel like you’re watching her thinking in close-up and her performance here is beyond praise: deep and rich and true. As the errant hubby, Lucian Msamati is stuck with some of Baldwin’s worst stuff: he has to be irreverent and a font of wisdom, be proved right in his assertion of his wife’s enduring devotion (ick) and keep collapsing on cue. But Msamati is such a charismatic presence that he gives the role a semblance of believability. Sharon D Clarke makes Odessa an epitome of wry, forthright good sense, while the awesome Cecilia Noble (making a welcome return to the NT after a long hiatus) does a delicious, aspirating turn as Sister Moore – a hilariously smarmy hypocrite with her eye on Margaret’s job. And while Eric Kofi Abrefa’s trajectory as David is perfectly predictable, the actor delivers his final monologue with so much heartfelt emotion that it becomes the production’s most moving moment.

Ultimately, then, there’s a generosity of spirit to Norris’s production that helps to overcome the more rigged and problematic elements of the drama, resulting in a rich, vibrant take on the play, one that has "NT summer crowd-pleaser" stamped all over it. Praise be.

Booking until 14 August.

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