Of the many recorded offerings during lockdown, Zodwa Nyoni’s play about a gay immigrant has been a highlight. Now this beautifully written, politically urgent piece has a short run as part of Nicholas Hytner’s season of monologues. And, Nine Lives is even better in real life.
The power of Nyoni’s writing was clear on the screen. Her character of Ishmael involves us in his struggle in a moving way while retaining a sense of humour. The issues around gay rights and immigration, looking at Ishmael’s past as well as life in his new home, are deftly handled.
Nyoni’s sophistication becomes all the more powerful when seen in person. Benefitting from this chance to see the show in a theatre is director Alex Chisholm, whose careful work is even more obvious. And gaining most is the show’s star Lladel Bryant. It’s fantastic to see Bryant hold a stage (and The Bridge is a big space) with such ease, drawing his audience in and making us care so much. And laugh too – moments when Bryant takes on extra characters that Ishmael meets have a magical charm.
Nyoni’s text has the refrain “some of us…”, calling forth lives other than Ishmael’s on to the stage. It serves as a reminder of the dangers fled from and the treatment of people in need of help. Reminders of group identities and responsibilities are why it’s so important to see Nine Lives with others; to have witness born in public, in front of an audience is something theatre offers that screens cannot. Community runs through the play and that is something best experienced together.
Until 31October 2020
Photo by Adam Robinson
Zodwa Nyoni’s excellent monologue, currently available on YouTube, is easy to recommend. Impeccably directed by Alex Chisholm, with a fantastic performance from Lladel Bryant, the recording is rough and ready. But Nyoni’s encompassing vision, full of humanity and poetry, make this one of those shows you feel everyone should see.
The story of a young man, Ishmael, seeking refuge from Zimbabwe because he is gay proves compelling. Bryant’s performance makes the character always approachable; even as Nyoni reveals traumatic “nightmares of the past” and during the painful wait for his fate to be decided in the UK (“limbo comes with every morning”).
Aided by effective lighting and sound design (credit to Jonathan Girling and Ed Clarke) Bryant, with just a suitcase, shows complex emotions revolving around the wish for a simple life. A range of extra characters, including his flatmate and his friend Becs, give Bryant the chance to further impress and add texture to his story. That Ishmael still faces homophobia – being “excluded by the excluded” – leads to a different kind of fund-raising appeal for this show: viewers are directed to the UK Lesbian & Gay Immigration Group.
Nyoni sees a bigger picture behind the main story – which is why her play seems so vital. A strong sense of community within Nine Lives comes with the repeated refrain: “some of us”. Recalling Zimbabwe, and the lives of those persecuted there, then drawing out the problems faced by refugees, expands the story with skill. This modest show becomes powerful and important by being perfectly formed and beautifully nurtured.