I think the first thing to say about Paulette Randall’s stunning production of August Wilson’s Fences is that it is historic in one – possibly more than one – important way. Although the production began life at Bath’s Theatre Royal, its transfer into the West End makes her the first black woman to have EVER directed a play in the West End. (I’m also currently wondering whether this is the first time an August Wilson play has made it to the West End as well.)
Lenny Henry has – rightly – been praised for his performance as Troy, which I have to say is a monumental part and the time, energy, lines, physicality of it puts me in mind of the joke about Richard Burbage telling William Shakespeare to never do anything like that to him again after Richard III, who is also almost never off stage. But along with Lenny Henry’s tour de force stands that of the rest of the cast – each and every one of them turned in finely nuanced performances which I wish I could capture and bottle, or at least describe. Facial expressions, body language, and – in the case of Tanya Moodie’s Rose – a stillness as she watched events unfold around her, sometimes standing in the shadows on the other side of the screen door (the set was the front porch and yard of a modest house in Pittsburgh – and, speaking as someone from that part of Appalachia, the front of that house was very familiar).
Henry’s already tackled Othello, but with this Troy I would like to see him give King Lear a whirl. Troy’s journey is one that is not unfamiliar in African-American (and, as I see in news reports, also in the black British experience): a troubled past with crime figuring heavily in his early life, but by the time we – as audience – meet Troy he’s turned his life around and has held down a steady job and been married to Rose for 18 years. A core of disappointment eats away at Troy because he was never able to play professional baseball, something he puts down to the color barrier and which Rose strikingly says is because he had been too old by the time he got out of prison. Whatever the reason – and both are more than plausible – Troy is haunted by his failed dream.
There is nothing so viscerally raw in American drama as the failure of the American dream – Arthur Miller’s plays are infused with the consequences (think Willy Loman) and Stephen Sondheim’s musical Assassins is about the extremes of what happens when people can’t get the prize purportedly offered by the American dream. One of Troy’s tragedies is that he stops his son from being recruited by a college football team – which would have been his ticket out of the working class environment with the chance of a college education. When he messes up his relationship with his wife, he is a truly broken man. Lenny Henry played the arc beautifully, beginning as a highly engaging and likable man to someone who nearly beats his son with a baseball bat.
Baseball and fences. Two other things that recur in the play. The American dream is predicated on home ownership and that home has a white picket fence around it. There was no Tom Sawyer moment with the fence that Troy is perpetually building, although it would not have been out of place. (Ignoring the racial implications of Mark Twain’s work here.) The baseball nuances I feel didn’t resonate very well with the audience this afternoon (the power of three strikes you’re out within the context of the play didn’t seem to raise the tension for those around us, although I was horrified; my knowledge of the Pittsburgh Pirates today as a multi-racial team made it difficult to hear Troy dismiss them as a white team). But you replace football with baseball and you’ve got the same analogy – it’s one of the ways (albeit highly unlikely to succeed) that children from underprivileged backgrounds can escape – and that is one of the ways I think the play speaks to a contemporary British audience. That and the ways in which we see Troy as both a human being and one whose race has clearly stopped him from trying for the American dream in full, despite at least attaining home ownership.
What I look forward to is having a conversation about August Wilson with someone who knew him very well. And talking about the ways in which his plays have become important to British theatrical life. To be continued (although possibly in the book)(when I manage to get a book deal and write it). In the meantime, I want – no, probably need is better – to see it again.