Written by Caryl Phillips and directed by Nancy Medina, Strange Fruit is currently performing at the Bush Theatre until 27th July 2019. I would utterly recommend this play. Despite its thorny and challenging nature, this play is beyond a treat, an opinion seemingly shared by the vast majority of spectators who only had positive comments to make.
For a three-hour long performance, it is imperative that the story, characters and actors be engaging and dynamic, and this was definitely the case for this play. There were often lengthy monologues, particularly for Errol (Jonathan Ajayi), which meant that other onstage actors were silent and still for a vast majority of the performance. However, a plethora of minute head-shakes, tears, swaying and eyes following the monologuer made for compact and dense scenes, full of subtleties which permitted a glimpse into the submissive psychology and sentiments of the passive characters. This was particularly true of Rakie Ayola (playing Vivian) in the scene with Tok Stephens (playing Alvin), a very moving scene, indeed. Even more moving, however, was the final scene in which we see Vivian and Vernice together (Debra Michaels). These two actresses were phenomenal in this scene, realistic, powerful and commanding.
I should also note that, whilst not perfect, the stage-fighting (directed by Yarit Dor) in this performance was the best I have seen yet, even better than most professional theatres. Punches and slaps could just be slightly more refined, and Ajayi’s punches whilst seizing Stephens, who lies on the floor, could be less hesitant and more realistic.
Though there were sometimes incoherencies between the text and its portrayal — one example being where Vivian tells Shelley (Tilly Steele) to “Calm down” when Steele’s characterisation didn’t permit for a reading of Shelley being so flustered — overall, the dramatic text was lifted well onto the stage through the energised, thoughtful and cogent actors. Certain aspects of the characters, however, were perhaps too caricature-like: Vivian’s constant, skittish and frenetic movements; Shelley’s exaggerated cockney accent; Errol’s erratic display of psychosis. These made for an incoherent acting style across the performers — compare these with Alvin’s calmness and coolness, for example — and hence for an overall lack of unrealism. Although, I believe this was more of a directorial/editorial problem, I would say.
This brings me on to writing. This is a very tough, difficult and controversial play. Its themes are brutal, unforgiving and loud. It speaks of an era still extremely pertinent today and brings its discussions closer to home. Relationships between characters were calculated with precision, and plot, though quite predictable overall, was engaging and thorough. Perhaps this play could have been shorter, as a lot of the material was repeated, but this was far from boring or monotonous in performance.
There was an odd sense of unclarity in this play, however. We really know very little of any of the characters, the most elucidated being, of course, Errol and Vivian, being the main characters and the ones with the most lines. This causes for a blurriness in understanding character motives. We get a vague sense that Shelley, for example, has a rough background where she is used to being treated badly and being made to feel worthless, so her choice to remain in an extremely abusive and abrasive relationship with Errol is partially understandable. But her persistence and past with Errol still remains very vague. Errol’s activism also remains quite vague, only slightly clarified in his scene with Shelley where he explains the daily struggles of black people and how these are facilitated by the British social system. His ties with the “Black Front” as he calls it seem very loose. There is, of course, truth in nearly everything he is saying about Black oppression, and so the mentioning of real events and actions tie the play with a historical reality. However, I find it difficult to understand which specific reality is represented. The Black Front, I believe was formed in the 1930s in Germany, and a Black Front Strike transpired in San Francisco in the late 1960s; I find it difficult to place these in the context and time period of this play.
I understand that he is made to seem psychotic, mad and crude in his judgement, but there is a vast lack of clarity as to what Errol is fighting for. Vivian clarifies the racism she has experienced in the past, but we only get snippets of Errol’s past and the realities which anger him, such as the cut on his leg or racism in football. These are very specific, isolated incidents. Whilst I understand that this play could simply serve as a representation of the misinformed perception of Black oppression today in a White culture which still misinterprets and misunderstands it, this play would be an excellent site for the didactic elucidation of modern Black strife. It should aim to explain to its audience the history but also the future of Black oppression. A lot more specificity is vital, I believe.
I was also rather concerned about the specificity of the Blackness represented and deliberated within the play. African culture and Caribbean culture are used almost interchangeably, eliminating any cultural specificities. I failed to understand, for example, why Vernice wore traditional African dress (costume supervised by Rianna Azoro) but spoke patois. I understand Errol’s propensity to switch into speaking patois slightly better — he and Alvin both lack a personal cultural history and identity; he comes from the Caribbean, would want to pay homage to his birth country and his father, and perhaps has surrounded himself around patois-speaking people due to his activism — however, if his desire rests in wanting to run away to Africa where, to his logic, there would be no white people in sight but only black [African] people, why would he not want to speak in an African dialect?
I feel that the play spent slightly too much time addressing the characters’ feelings and relationships that it ignored the sociopolitical context they dwell within but also a deeper portrayal of their motives and desires. This context should have been explicated further for spectators — especially for any who would have little knowledge on such matters.
There are definitely many brush-overs in this play, perhaps the biggest one being Shelley’s rape scene (intimacy directed by Yarit Dor). Errol’s misogyny already being quite clear, I am not sure this moment was really needed. But if it did feel necessary, I believe that more thought should have been put into it. Shelley’s “This is your destiny” was hilarious, engendering strong laughter from the entire audience…and that’s a problem. I could only think this hilarity was desired for two reasons: 1) to accentuate the ridiculousness of Shelley’s objectifying herself, wanting to stay with him and putting herself forward to him so virulently; and/or 2) to alleviate the high tension amongst audience members. The first would be counterproductive in terms of a feminist approach, for this shames Shelley for her actions rather than the context she exists within which prompts them. The second is highly undesirable, for this tension is what is needed to really arouse disgust and hatred amongst spectators. Steele’s expressions of discomfort and fear during Shelley’s rape were powerful, whereas her line statement made light of an otherwise awful subject. The farce of her rape made for a demeaning almost-glorification of it. A similar thing could be said for Errol’s psychosis, reflecting rather regressively a borderline-stereotypical mental illness sufferer.
On to set design (Max Johns). I think it was a good idea to ignore directions stated in the dramatic text. Whilst the script details a cramped, cluttered and claustrophobic room, the spaciousness in this performance led for more distance between the characters, both physically and figuratively. The pit in the centre of the stage added dynamism and difference. Small props, such as the suitcase or ironing board, added enough realism to denote setting, and, seeing as the entire play takes place in Vivian’s living room, other denotations were not necessary.
I was particularly mesmerised by the symbolism of the snow, both in the writing and the set design. I thought this was a subtle imagery which beautifully encapsulated Vivian’s innocence, naïveté and gentleness but also her fragility and her attempts at joy, peace and ideality. For the snow to be accompanied with verbal and physical violence, and later suicide, was an unsettling and subversively romantic decision. I would just have liked the material to be slightly smaller, and perhaps finer, to make the snow seem more realistic. Without the snow’s pretext, this would have perhaps seemed as though confetti with its thickness.
As for lighting (designed by Sally Ferguson), states alternated between three: coloured washes, naturalistic, and absent. For such a still and (positively) static performance, the tech should match, and it did. These three states were used efficaciously and did not subtract from the performance at all; they only embellished it. It is the mark of a true artist to know when their work is not needed and when it is sufficient as it is. I would just pay attention to the rainbow strips lining one side of the stage in the second act. I could not quite work out where these were coming from, but they were very distracting.
As for sound (designed by Xana), this, too, added realism and depth in extending the performance space to the kitchen. However, the sounds were too loud, and increasingly so towards the end. This made for a comic texture and was ineffective, subtracting particularly from the power of the scene between Vivian and Vernice. The two cry with one another in terror and in shock…and then a brazen, confident tap starts belting out water. Very distracting. The running taps should not be as loud as the gunfire.
Overall, this performance was captivating and potent, lifting off of the page smoothly and stridently. I would just be careful of how the world of this play reflects and extends to the real world. Such dark and real matters should not be brushed over, for this enables an ignorance of their position and function in the real world.
“A dark, compelling and powerful piece of theatre.”