Young Vic Theatre, London – until 25 June 2022
Ah OKLAHOMA! That sunny, optimistic paean to community, New Frontier-ism and just good ole wholesome Americana. The original version (New York 1943, London 1947) transformed musical theatre with its use of songs to illuminate character and propel the plot forward, and in its creation of a ballet sequence to express subtext.
A winning combination of tonal simplicity and artistic sophistication, it galvanised and comforted wan theatregoers in the wake of WW2, the songs became standards, and the film version further cemented its reputation as a classic. This is the sort of theatrical comfort food that post-pandemic, post-Brexit audiences facing spiralling bills and uncertainty about the future will be craving, right? A chance to kick back, relax and bask in the company of familiar characters and well-loved songs. Yes?
Er, well, not exactly. At least not in Daniel Fish’s sexed-up, pared-down version (co-directed for London by Jordan Fein), less a revival and more a full blown deconstruction of the original material, that is likely to infuriate as many people as it enchants. I first saw it at a matinee on Broadway in 2019 and suspected that my impression that it was more to be admired than enjoyed may have influenced by the big Joe Allens lunch I’d had immediately beforehand than any shortcomings in Fish’s bold reimagining, so I was keen to look at it again.
In all honesty, my impression didn’t change that much re-encountering it at the Young Vic: it’s a remarkable, mould-breaking production by turns breathtaking and brilliant, but also at times perversely impenetrable. The score is given a country and western/bluegrass makeover that only occasionally makes one long for the orchestral swell of yore, and the singing is sometimes a little ragged as befits the gritty, non-glamorous setting.
This Oklahoma! interrogates the whole concept of America as an inclusive Land of the Free, and the idea that community is a force for good takes a real battering: the marginalisation of Jud Fry, the misunderstood farmhand, has never been as powerful or brutal as it is here.
In a heartbreaking performance, Patrick Vaill – one of two holdovers from the original cast – invests him with a childlike openness shading into alarming aggression. He is a haunting, haunted figure of tragic stature and not inconsiderable sympathy. Vaill is extraordinary. The so-called ‘hero’, Curly, on the other hand, in Arthur Darvill’s commendably brave reading, is a dead-eyed, manipulative chancer capable of turning on the charm for sure, but with a streak of ruthlessness that chills the blood. There’s a strong hint of homoeroticism in the cruel scene, usually played for at least some laughs but here in almost total darkness with the actors faces in night vision scope being filmed and projected onto the back wall, where Curly visits Jud in his living shack and tries to persuade him to commit suicide.
Anoushka Lucas’s Laurey is a fascinating combination of resignation, fury and fear, a far from uncomplicated heroine, and the music sits most exquisitely in her voice. The performance closest to the spirit of the original is perhaps Marisha Wallace’s sexy-as-hell, vocally thrilling Ado Annie. It’s a gift of a role anyway but Wallace gorgeously remints it, presenting a sexually voracious, fiery diva with an irresistible combination of fun and naivety. James Davis and Stavros Demetraki are terrific as the men understandably in her thrall.
The phenomenally successful Trevor Nunn version for the National in 1998 -with Maureen Lipman as an unusually spiky Aunt Eller and where Josefina Gabrielle’s beautifully melancholic, multi-layered Laurey was the perfect ying to the yang of Hugh Jackman’s confident, charismatic cowboy – found an unexpected darkness in the material that threw the joyous moments into glorious relief (the ‘Farmer And The Cowman’ section fair exploded with vitality all over the Olivier stage). But Fish goes darker here, many many tones darker. If Lipman’s Eller was tough, Liza Sadovy’s is pure granite, which makes perfect dramatic sense in this hardscrabble environment where guns seem easier to lay hands on than money. The constant use of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s names in all the branding might be a requirement of licensing from their estate but it’s also quite useful as a reminder for the uninitiated who might be under the misapprehension that they’re watching Sam Peckinpah’s or, Gawd help us all, Ivo van Hove’s Oklahoma.
In Laura Jellinek and Grace Laubacher’s immersive design, the Young Vic, like the Circle In The Square on Broadway previously and Brooklyn’s St Anne’s Warehouse before that, has been transformed into a community hall set up for a celebration somewhere in rural, present day America. A monochrome mural suggests the wide open plains outside, trestle tables sit atop a plain hardboard floor, guns line the walls, and the whole thing is lit harshly, as though there is nowhere to hide. The house lights never dim except for moments when the whole space is plunged into discombobulating darkness. The costumes are deliberately low budget and low key. The gingham dresses traditionalists might expect to see make a sort-of appearance in the box social scenes of the second act but they seem tawdry and garish, as though commenting mockingly on audience expectations of what Oklahoma! is supposed to look like.
In one of the biggest departures from the original, Laurey’s famous Dream Ballet has been transformed into a solo dance, shrouded in dry ice and half of it in pitch darkness with, once again, live-filmed images projected onto the back wall. It’s menacing, athletic, nightmarish… and Rodgers’s music is distorted into a sort of deafening Progressive Rock. Marie-Astrid Mence, diminutive and dynamic, delivers John Heginbotham’s splayed fingered, angular limbed choreography, pitched somewhere between horseplay and eroticism, with authentic commitment. At one point, a dozen or so cowboy boots drop from the flies, presumably to signify male upon female oppression (the constant references to women “belonging to” men in the script really rankle in a modern setting, which is of course the point), but the whole section may prove too esoteric for many.
At times aggressively ugly and only intermittently uplifting, this is inevitably not going to be everybody’s idea of what they want from this particular musical. It’s worth noting though that Fish and collaborators don’t alter a single line of dialogue or note of music, they simply repoint almost everything to sometimes devastating effect. The cover-up surrounding Jud’s murder at the end is grimly pragmatic and leads into a final, blood-spattered blast of the (usually) celebratory title song (“we know we belong to the land / and the land we belong to is grand”) where the increasingly traumatised and desperate body language and expressions on the faces of the characters, suggests that their lives will never be the same again. Fish and Fein have succeeded in making this show seem even more tragic than Carousel, which is something of an achievement. I love a “dark” musical and, watching this, vacillated between feeling it was reminiscent of the Emperor’s New Clothes, and then being pinned to the back of my seat with astonishment at the audacity and sheer ingenuity of what they’ve achieved.
Love it or hate it, this is one of the main talking points of theatrical London right now.