Tag Archives: Ola Ince

“Is God Is” at the Royal Court Theatre

Whether young, middle-aged or old, the women in Aleshea Harris’ play are tired. Traumatised, abused, abandoned – or all three – what drives them is anger. Revenge and rage take their toll, but for the 90-minute duration of Is God Is they create an exhilarating piece – it’s the characters and not the audience who are exhausted.


A hit in New York, the play is a good fit for the Royal Court, where we expect to see the engaging of big themes and explorations of dialogue and theatrical form. And we’re used to a dark sense of humour, which this play takes to an extreme. Is God Is succeeds all round and stands out as original.


Harris’ use of dialect and characters’ deliberate inarticulacy is sophisticated. There are influences from hip-hop and Afropunk (excuse my ignorance – I’m trusting the back of the script on that). But the blunt statements and a new level of deadpan understatement make this murderous revenge story very funny.


As for form, the road trip that twins Racine and Anaia embark on engages with movies as much as the theatre. It’s an Americana tour from the “dirty South” to a not-so-wild West that ends with a showdown. The acceptance of a circle of violence is seldom questioned – as in a movie – which is surprisingly unsettling on stage. In her mad mash-up of Cain and Abel with an inverted sacrifice of Isaac, Harris isn’t scared to create a satire of biblical proportions.

Serious subjects? The title is hardly subtle. The twins’ long-missing mother is immediately and inexplicably identified as God. And ‘She’ issues the mission of murdering their father! Harris makes sure we question free will and plays with plenty of excuses for all kinds of inexcusable behaviour. Messages and morals are skilfully slippery, and audience complicity in blood lust manipulated. For all that praise, the larger motives behind Is God Is get lost.


Firstly, some especially vivid characters prove distracting. This isn’t an even-handed issue. With the men in the show the best we get is Mark Monero’s crisp father (who only appears in the penultimate scene). But the women in the play are – in every sense – fantastic. Both Cecilia Noble and Vivienne Acheampong, two very different kinds of mothers, have great roles that they develop marvellously. More of Acheampong’s Angie would be welcome: this bored housewife, who has her own plans, adds to the mix immeasurably. As for the leads – Tamara Lawrance and Adelayo Adedayo – are barely off the stage and don’t so much hold attention as grab and throttle it: “hard end” Racine and the emotional Anaia are a consistent, entertaining and invigorating pair.


Despite the bizarre premise and having its tongue firmly in its cheek (it really is funny) Is God Is triumphs with its plotting. How old fashioned! Ola Ince’s direction, and a set full of fun and signposts from Chloe Lamford, make this bloody journey breakneck. No matter how crazy, the story is driven impeccably. Gory and tense as well as sometimes silly makes for a fascinating and memorable production.

Until 23 October 2021

www.royalcourttheatre.com

Photos by Tristram Kenton

"Appropriate" at the Donmar Warehouse

Newly appointed artistic director Michael Longhurst has his first big find for the Donmar with this excellent play by American writer Branden Jacobs-Jenkins. The production is impeccably directed by Ola Ince with a precise hand which complements the depth of the script. Set over a fraught weekend, as the Lafayette siblings fight over the sale of their family home, the play looks at legacy – historical, financial and emotional – hitting on important themes. But Jacobs-Jenkins has a steely eye on the present and his touch is comic. Appropriate is a smart satire, all about behaviour far from befitting. But first of all this is a play with real belly laughs – a super strong comedy not to be missed.

The former plantation house, containing some trigger warning trash, serves as an appropriate location to consider ghosts from the past. Ince provides the spookiness suggested in the text superbly. A hint of horror amongst the comedy adds fun but is also a warning note: no matter how bad things get, a house with its own slave graveyard has seen worse. In the present, and without catastrophising – there’s plenty of that from the privileged characters – the Layfayette’s make a sorry lot. When they see a chance to profit they rush to take it. With questions of appropriation left aside. Meanwhile, the hang-ups and addictions of three generations crowd the stage. It’s quite the crisis for what used to be the elite; as we move from family drama to state of the nation play, dysfunctional is the word.

Monica Dolan, Steven Mackintosh and Edward Hogg in Appropriate
Monica Dolan, Steven Mackintosh and Edward Hogg

These “misfit disaster people” are awful enough to get a lot of laughs; prepare to gasp at what they say when their blood is up. But Jacobs-Jenkins makes sure none of them are irredeemable. There’s a reason for older brother Bo’s greed and Steven Mackintosh’s performance in the part carefully shows us a man under pressure. Meanwhile Edward Hogg, as prodigal son Frank, is appealingly offbeat – until how much of a delinquent he really was is revealed. As their partners, Jaimi Barbakoff and Tafline Steen both excel with themes of nurture and motherhood, flipping from sensible concerns to exaggerated fads. Both characters are sources of fun – sensitive, privileged and modish, they’re easy to mock – but the women can hold their own. No matter how silly or objectionable the opinions shouted by all, it’s not easy to dismiss these people

Ahead of them all is big sister Toni, both formidable and fragile. It’s the role of a lifetime for Monica Dolan who impresses with every line. Toni is “disgusting” plenty of times – rude, racist, overbearing and oversensitive. But there’s no doubt that she has borne the brunt of looking after the family and her father. Sharp as a knife and nearly always funny, with her common sense up against political correctness (always popular), Toni has the play’s most moving moments too.

Plenty of theories and trends meet the messiness of real life here, which proves emotional as well as entertaining. The characters’ pain always convinces and causes us to pause. Since everyone is selfish, it’s harder to take sides than you might think. Jacobs-Jenkins makes us laugh and leaves us thinking, as you try to work out if anyone is ever acting appropriately. And what your proper response to what you’re watching should be.

Until 5 October 2019

www.donmarwarehouse.com

Photos by Marc Brenner

“The Convert” at the Young Vic

Trying to tackle colonialism and religion, along with sexism and education, could easily overwhelm a play. But this assured work from Danai Gurira, directed with inspired steps by Ola Ince, takes all these big topics in its elegant stride.

The key to success might come from specificity: the play focuses on the distinctly Catholic experience of a single woman, Jekesai, alongside the history of one uprising in the Zimbabwe of 1896. The characters are all local and their culture is explored in detail, with complex results that are rich and satisfying. It’s an in-depth look, from many angles, complemented perfectly by the decision to stage the show in the round.

Letitia Wright makes Jekesai’s conversion believable – and that she sees the opportunity for power and representation through religion is an exciting spin, as Christianity literally saves her from a marriage of convenience. Quickly becoming the protégé of Mr Clifford, who aspires to be a priest, this is a central relationship that’s as moving as it is layered. Clifford is given a superb realisation by Paapa Essiedu. Full of repression and conviction, for all his weaknesses he’s a hero of sorts. With the pair seen as collaborators of the colonists, and therefore targets, the theme of religious persecution is given a forceful twist. Two strong female characters accentuate the complexities of locating dissent. Pamela Nomvete plays a servant who pays only lip service to her master’s religion, while Luyanda Unati Lewis-Nyawo is the blue-stocking Miss Prudence ready to provide a feminist perspective.

The one exception to a generally old-fashioned feel is to include a lot of a local language, which highlights linguicism with great dramatic skill. Gurira bolsters the point, again skilfully, with the Queen’s English that the play’s westernised characters speak. There’s humour in mistakes in syntax and endearing precision, but the connection between power and language is clear and thought-provoking. The struggle with speaking is one of many carefully developed investigations of imperialism. But views never feel forced on characters (true a “signifier” slips in once) and a believably late Victorian feel indicates thorough research alongside theoretical thinking.

Among all the issues, Gurira hasn’t forgotten the basics, and The Convert is a well-crafted, traditional piece. There’s a set of strong characters that the performers get their teeth into and a powerful plot that builds tension marvellously. In short, it’s a gripping story about people you really care for.

Until 26 January 2019

www.youngvic.org

Photo by Marc Breener