BWW Review: THE ROYALE Hits Hard on Sport, Sacrifice, and Honour
Written by Marco Ramirez and directed by Guillermo Verdecchia in this Soulpepper production, THE ROYALE is described as a match told in six rounds. What viewers actually get is a 90-minute whirlwind of emotion packed to the brim with subtle self-reference and a gut-wrenching showdown between a rising boxing star and a legend come out of retirement to defend his title.
The play begins in the ring, where the seasoned black heavyweight champion Jay "The Sport" Jackson (Dion Johnstone) is about to face-off against rookie Fish (Christef Desir) in the latter's first professional fight. The staging of the fight (Simon Fon) - and of all fights - steers clear from standard boxing to deliver a striking opening scene.
Throughout the show, Jay works his way into the fight for the title of overall heavyweight champion, regardless of race. The frequent mention of Jim Crow-era mentalities and concepts serve as a powerful reminder to the cruelty and callousness of the period, and as with all good sport stories, builds to the final match in a more intense and exciting manner than could be done on-screen.
As the charismatic, if not a bit of a show-off, Jay, Johnstone is never in short supply of a charming smirk or a quick remark whether he's in the ring with an opponent or facing off against the press. Johnstone's character comes off a bit of a braggart at first, but as the show progresses and more blatant racism enters his world, audiences get to enjoy watching Jay change, scene by scene and round by round, until the gut-wrenching finale - and the huge exhale that accompanies the dimming of the final spotlight.
Standing alongside Johnstone are a dynamic group of actors who manage to cement themselves as key figures in Jay's story, beginning with his rival and suggested successor, Fish. Desir brings Fish to the ring with such a sweetness, and his comedic timing is bang-on - Desir's whole demeanor is so well suited to this character that it seems as if it were written with him in mind.
Filling out Jay's team are promoter Max (Diego Matamoros), whose frantic energy plays well against Johnstone's calculated Jay during their interactions, and long-time coach Wynton (Alexander Thomas). Thomas' warm voice is thankfully the main narration behind fights, training, and provides general guidance to Jay. His monologue is heartbreaking and chilling in its delivery, and gives other famous fictional coach pep-talks a real run for their money.
Although she enters later in the play, Nina (Sabryn Rock) quite possibly delivers the performance of the night. Her raw power on stage while up against Johnstone's initial swagger and following insecurity is enticing in a way many female characters don't have the chance to be in sport stories, and Rock justifies her place alongside her all-male colleagues within her first few moments of dialogue.
As with any stage work, the cast can only carry the show so far before production has to uphold its end, and in THE ROYALE, every aspect of design is so in tune with what the story needs. Possibly the most stunning is the lighting (Michelle Ramsey), where a constant mix between dramatic top-down spotlights and act-closing back lights provide some of the most visually interesting moments in the show. Sound (Thomas Ryder Payne) is minimal and effective, and while the stage design (Ken MacKenzie, also completing costume design) is just a single-sided boxing ring, the muted beige tones throughout blend wonderfully into the theater, and really lets the actors control the space.
THE ROYALE is a story centered on honour, pride, and responsibility - and this cast and crew deliver a knockout interpretation of the original written work. If the regular stomping and pounding rhythms of the show don't shake you...the dialogue certainly will.
THE ROYALE runs through November 11 at the Young Centre for the Performing Arts, 50 Tank House Lane, Toronto, ON.
For more information or to buy tickets, visit https://soulpepper.ca/performances/the-royale/6158