BWW Review: FATHER COMES HOME FROM THE WARS, Royal Court, 22 September 2016

The current racial crisis in America might seem too urgent, too horrific, for us to be constantly seeking historical stories, but Suzan-Lori Parks's play cycle makes a vividly articulate case for the long thread running from 19th-century slavery to 2016 debate over entrenched ethnic hierarchies and the nature of freedom. Originally staged at New York's Public Theater in 2014, Jo Bonney's acclaimed production now makes a welcome visit to the Court, where this intimate epic unspools unhurriedly and mesmerisingly.

We see three of nine planned parts: in the first, Texan slave Hero tries to decide whether to accompany his Confederate master to war in hopes of attaining freedom by fighting those who would abolish slavery; in the second, Hero, his master and their Union soldier prisoner, held for potential ransom, engage in a fascinating battle of wits; and in the third, Hero returns to a home that's altered irrevocably in his absence.

It's all Greek to Parks, with her choral exposition and messenger, plus Hero going on a loose odyssey (also the name of his talking dog) after arguing with a fellow slave named Homer. But there's something of the Brechtian epic as well to this playful fable; Parks's fourth wall-breaking poetry - appropriately enough - bridges the gap between ancient and modern forms of storytelling. She peppers her text with anachronistic language and references, and Emilio Sosa echoes that by providing modern footwear, caps and baseball jerseys.

The first part is the biggest audience test, with a well-drawn but protracted and didactic debate prioritised over characterisation. Fortunately, a strong cast fills in the gaps: Nadine Marshall, as Hero's wife Penny, brings a fierce ardour and wisdom interestingly clouded by bias; Leo Wringer, in doddery old man mode, is both amusing and poignant as Hero's adopted father; and Jimmy Akingbola's Homer challenges the hero worship of, er, Hero with fiery righteousness.

But the electrifying part two benefits from that slow and steady set-up, enriching a three-way power play that works beautifully on both human and symbolic levels. It's a fascinating dynamic: the captive and the slave, wearing different kinds of chains; Hero's loyalties shifting between Boss-Master, whose superiority has been ingrained into him, and an ideological ally; and the worth of a person, as determined by the army, society, the marketplace or the individual, fervently debated.

The prisoner has injured his leg - does that lessen his worth? Does Hero's advanced age lessen his, or is it offset by an increased skillset? What about military rank or the differences between noble birth and wealth, the latter a chip on the shoulder of Hero's master, a self-made man? Loyalty and allegiance to a cause can also be bought - Hero is bribed by the promise of freedom, another soldier by the promise of slaves. Yet race looms large, no matter the experience, actions or behaviour of each man.

Tom Bateman is superb as the watchful captive, who balances passionate moralising with wily deception. John Stahl, though occasionally misplacing his accent, is a skin-crawling sparring partner - charming, silver-tongued, pitiless yet genuinely distressed at the thought of losing his slave/surrogate son (even if those tears are undercut by the comic quivering of his oversized plume). Most chillingly, he voices the bald truth of inequality: "I am grateful every day that God made me white".

Steve Toussaint's Hero shifts fascinatingly depending on his company, consciously or unconsciously internalising their view of him. He's the great warrior, the prized possession, the good man, the traitor, the lover, the lowly slave, the kindred spirit or the lost soul, cut adrift from his community.

The third section has an elegiac quality, give or take the swagalicious talking dog who might have escaped from a particularly hip Pixar project (a great turn by Dex Lee). The idea of loyalty is tested still further, as is the reality of emancipation: racial prejudice is so embedded, so complex and knotty, that its removal will be gradual at best, impossible at worst. Freedom may prove a cruel mirage. If less dramatically urgent, it still - as do the other two parts - boasts one fantastic twist.

Like a great symphony, Parks's work is full of recurring themes and motifs, from fatherhood and faith to promises and free choice - the latter both an ideal and a burden. Its musicality is underlined by the presence of a balladeer, music director Steven Bargonetti, whose effortlessly charismatic bluesy singing and guitar-strumming - as with Temesgen Zeleke's similarly invaluable work in the Young Vic's The Emperor - is textured, engrossing and profoundly expressive.

David McSeveney provides the evocative sound of distant guns on the battlefield, and Neil Patel a simple but effective design: a whitewashed porch front, wooden cage, and path to or from the slaves' habitation. But most of the time, characters are looking beyond their surroundings, waiting for change to come over the horizon. Historical drama with vital resonance.

Father Comes Home From The Wars at the Royal Court until 22 October

Photo credit: Tristram Kenton

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From This Author Marianka Swain

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