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Posts Tagged ‘David Harewood’

The master chronicler of British politics of the late 20th / early 21st centuries turns his attention to the US in 1968, a year that may have heralded the beginning of the polarisation we’ve been living through for the last five years or so, inspired by the documentary by Morgan Neville & Robert Gordon. An extraordinarily eventful year in which the Vietnam War continued to divide the nation and the world, Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King were assassinated, student riots across the globe, civil rights protests the US, the Democratic Convention beleaguered by protest and division and Nixon was elected President, to replace LBJ.

The focus of James Graham’s new play is the adversarial ABC TV debates between William F Buckley Jr and Gore Vidal, which took place prior to and during the 1968 Democratic Convention, but the play is populated with other real life characters from the period, including writer James Baldwin, singers Aretha Franklin, Petula Clark and Harry Belafonte and artist Andy Warhol, with Enoch Powell and Tariq Ali representing the UK! Graham says the debates are verbatim, but everything else is speculation. It’s an extraordinary sweep of events which feels more like a decade than a year, that comes over as historically significant.

Jeremy Herrin marshals his outstanding cast of just ten, some playing up to seven characters, to make this all very real, from TV studios to protests to rallies to more intimate scenes in hotel bedrooms. David Harewood and Charles Edwards are terrific as Buckley and Vidal, sparring on camera and off. John Hodgkinson’s three roles include the contrasting somewhat calm TV interviewer Howard K Smith and the bombastic larger-than-life Mayor Daley of Chicago, both brilliantly done. Tom Godwin manages to characterise people as diverse as Andy Warhol, Bobby Kennedy and Enoch Powell to great success. Similarly, Surus Lowe brings James Baldwin, Harry Belafonte and Martin Luther King to life.

I didn’t engage with the play as much as I have with Graham’s British material, and I did feel it needed tightening up occasionally, but it’s great new writing given a thrilling production and I left the theatre replete, still thinking about these historical events and their contemporary relevance. Another great night at the Young Vic.

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I’m going have to eat my ‘where are the new plays?’ and ‘the National can’t find good new plays’ words as this is a very good and very clever new play at the National!

Playwright Moira Buffini has taken the Greek legends of Thebes and Athens and moved them to a present day African country coming out of violent civil war. The newly elected president Eurydice and her mostly female cabinet are trying to keep the warlords and their boy soldiers, led by Prince Tydeus, at bay. The ‘first citizen’ of wealthy neighbour Athens, which is providing peace-keepers, attends the presidential inauguration and reconstruction conference and the battle for his favours and the newly democratic country’s survival unfolds.

It’s surprising how well this all works and how well Buffini manages to walk the line between serious stuff about war and politics and entertaining drama. There’s some cracking dialogue – at one point someone refers to Antigone’s father Oedipus as ‘your mother-f**king father’ and, more chillingly, a boy soldier is told ‘ you’re old enough to kill but not old enough to vote’ – and the story is well paced.

When he ran the NT, director Richard Eyre always knew how to use the Olivier stage well, and here he is again 12 years on doing it again. Tim Hatley has designed a very believable post-war setting and there’s great use of music, played live by a 5-piece band.

When a large black cast was last assembled on this stage for Death and The King’s Horseman, I remember the Time Out reviewer saying ‘if you’re a black actor and you aren’t in this, get a new agent’! This large and largely black ensemble is also excellent, led by Nikki Amuka-Bird (so good on TV recently in Small Island) who’s President is a combination of passion, dignity and naivety and the wonderful David Harewood following his TV Mandela and theatrical Martin Luther King playing Theseus, first citizen of Athens, as a seasoned manipulative politician.

A good new play at the National – and in the Olivier too!

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