Not Exactly Billington has set themselves a challenge to read a new (to them) playtext every week. In May, their #ReadaPlayaWeek titles included Tarell Alvin McCraney’s The Brothers Size, Roy Williams’ interpretation of Antigone, Olwen Wymark’s Find Me, Michaela Coel’s Chewing Gum Dreams, and Kenneth Lonergan’s This is Our Youth.
The Brothers Size (2007) by Tarell Alvin McCraney
Drawing upon Yoruba mythology (characters are named after and embody deities – the worker; the astute warrior; the trickster), McCraney tells the story of a search for identity and brotherly love in the American South.
Ogun and Oshoosi Size are everything to each other; their mother died when they were young and they were raised by an unsympathetic aunt. As the eldest, Ogun feels the weight of responsibility upon his shoulders as he spends his life trying to set his younger brother on the right path. Now, Oshoosi has returned from a stint in prison with his ne’re do well cellmate and substitute brother, Elegba, in tow, and is determined to make something of himself.
McCraney’s play is small but large in scope. The mythological allusions lend an ancient timelessness to the piece which elevates it above simple ‘family drama’. Memories are weaved into narratives, dreams melt into songs, and an uncanny sense of déjà vu pervades many a scene; McCraney builds a world in which we are not quite sure what is illusion and reality, a trick strengthened by the unusual aspect of having the characters speak the stage directions (including their feelings and expressions) as they perform.
Thus a sense of artifice is fused with a guise of deep personal insight. The relationship between Oshoosi and Elegba remains enigmatic and causes friction with the solid, loyal, but weary Ogun. Moving, with flashes of warmth and humour, McCraney draws his characters with great empathy and keeps the reader on their toes until the bittersweet end. Published by Faber & Faber
Antigone (2014), in a contemporary version by Roy Williams, inspired by Sophocles
Often, when I choose to read older plays or plays originally written in a different language for the first time, I find myself tending to avoid contemporary versions of them. What that means is that I’ve foolishly had the preconception that translations written by scholars from the 1950s, let’s say, are bound to be more faithful than more recent offerings.
That idea, of course, is a fallacy. Comparing a Cherry Orchard, for example, translated in 1949 to one from 2019 will proffer different experiences, but even if the former may be closer to or contains more of the literal translation, this doesn’t mean to say it doesn’t conform to theatre practices at the time. Whether the story is given a contemporary version, reimagined or retold, the essence of the ‘original’ inspiration is still the core of the play even if the aesthetics, language, names and setting are all different. That’s certainly the case in Williams’ Antigone which is given a modern urban setting; in a city ruled by gangs, the title character’s (Tig) wish to bury her brother is at odds with Creo’s (the ruler of Thebes) demands. By wanting to carry out a natural act of respect and closure for a family member, she challenges his authority, throwing his power into doubt. What’s fascinating about this version (and it is Creo’s story as much as it is Tig’s) is seeing his far-reaching influence turn into lonely madness, denying the advice of his followers, family and elders.
There are universal themes at play such as honour, loyalty, and power but Williams also captures a sense of contemporaneity and theatricality in his vision. Cameras, social media and screens become the omniscient gods. And in a neat cyclicality, the text is framed by Creo having lost the trappings of a ruler and being a mere drunk on the street. In a play where the soldiers become more independently-thinking as the play goes on, this Antigone is a warning against herd mentality.
Published by Methuen Drama
Find Me (1977), by Olwen Wymark
“Dear whoever you are, find me and have me as your beloved”
The above quote was found among the scribblings in an exercise book given to Wymark by the parents of Verity, the protagonist of Find Me, and became the starting point for this nosedive into the depressingly tragic state of mental wellbeing and healthcare for vulnerable children. The play tracks young Verity’s life from being a disruptive child, through her stints in various health institutes and half-way homes, to the jail cell she’s confined to for setting a chair on fire. Wymark also places a strong focus on the impact of these events on Verity’s family – her older brother feels ashamed and embarrassed by his sister’s behaviour, her parents’ relationship becomes strained to breaking point – and we see how individual mental illness has repercussions on wider social communities in scenes such as a neighbourhood bonfire party, and a family holiday to France.
Wymark creates a sense of the erraticism with which Verity’s life unfolds by mixing up the cast and characters – a different person plays Verity, her parents etc. in each scene, while key moments are highlighted by all five ‘Verities’ speaking in unison. The whirlwind of scenes, jumps through time, and multitude of characters make for a pretty breath taking piece, and I applaud Wymark – and the real Verity’s parents who were consulted in depth – for showing the strains of mental illness in all their ugliness and pain. The sense of futility during a scene in which dad, Edward, pleads with multiple agencies, councils, institutes and homes for help – any help at all – only to be cut off mid-sentence is gutting. The character of Verity herself remains an enigma, and any criticism I have would be that, as a result of such inscrutability, she feels a little 2-dimensional. Although this may be the point, we are seeing her through the eyes of others and brief glimpses into her mind, such as my opening quote, which are merely tantalising titbits that mimic the frustration felt by the adults enlisted to care for her. A brave play.
Published by Methuen Drama
Chewing Gum Dreams (2012), by Michaela Coel
“You’re failing you probably don’t do anything in your life… and you never will…”
Fleabag is the obvious comparison to make with Coel’s play, later adapted into the E4 series Chewing Gum. Written and performed by Coel, Chewing Gum Dreams is a monologue giving insight to the life of 14-year-old Tracey: an underperforming, non-aspirational, recalcitrant, easily forgotten about teenager in the margins of society. It’s full of screwball characters, fresh humour, no crowbarred exposition, and roguishly funny and in-the-moment dialogue.
The way Coel has written it, as she might have performed it, is fascinating. Spaces on the page indicate where a new character might speak – or at least where she’s recalling someone else speaking – and punctuation is used not so much to be grammatically correct but to indicate emphasis, pauses and new thoughts. Although Chewing Gum Dreams is probably most memorably a comedy, it’s also an astutely written play addressing the realities (for many) of growing up in modern Britain.
Published by Oberon Books
This is Our Youth (1996), by Kenneth Lonergan
I wrote about This is Our Youth as part of a blog post on three of Kenneth Lonergan’s works.
“Like right now you’re all like this rich little pot-smoking burnout rebel, but ten years from now you’re gonna be like a plastic surgeon reminiscing about how wild you used to be”
Published by Dramatists Play Service Inc.