Review Round-up: Critics Share Kwei-Armah Regret
Date: 15 November 2007
The final instalment in actor-playwright Kwame Kwei-Armah National Theatre triptych about life in modern black Briton, Statement of Regret, received its world premiere last night (14 November 2007, previews from 1 November) at the NT Cottesloe, where Fix Up and the award-winning Elmina's Kitchen preceded it in 2004 and 2003 (See News, 4 Sep 2007).
In Statement of Regret, Kwaku Mackenzie, the founder of a black policy think tank, hits the bottle after his father’s death. When, in a vain attempt to regain influence, he publicly champions divisions within the black community, the consequences are shattering. Should black Britons have solidarity – or not?
Elmina's Kitchen won the 2003 Evening Standard Award for Most Promising Playwright and in 2005 it transferred to the Garrick Theatre, where Kwei-Armah (well known to TV fans from Casualty) took over the starring role and it became the first play by a black Briton in the West End.
In Statement of Regret, Don Warrington, who played Kwei-Armah’s feckless father in Elmina's Kitchen, stars as Kwaku Mackenzie. Also in the cast are Angel Coulby, Oscar James, Trevor Laird, Colin McFarlane, Chu Omambala, Javone Prince, Clifford Samuel and Ellen Thomas. The production is directed by Jeremy Herrin (who had a hit earlier this year at the Royal Court with Polly Stenham’s That Face) and designed by Mike Britton. It continues in rep until 6 February 2008.
Inevitably, Statement of Regret caused critics to recall Kwei-Armah’s earlier instalments in his triptych – as well as Roy Williams’ new play on a similar theme – and, for most, the new piece was found wanting in comparison. (With the exception of the Daily Telegraph’s Charles Spencer, who declared that Kwei-Armah “is back in blazing form”.) Though all admitted that Kwei-Armah’s ideas were ambitious, most felt that, in terms of presentation, they did not work dramatically. Nevertheless, there was widespread praise for Don Warrington’s “Lear-like” performance as Kwaku.
Michael Coveney on Whatsonstage.com (two stars) – “Statement of Regret is a fascinating document based on current thinking about ‘post-traumatic slave syndrome’ and reparations for past wrong-doing. As drama, though, it leaves quite a bit to be desired. … Kwei-Armah is obviously voicing some very potent misgivings about new black politics. And the core is Kwaku’s insistence on creating further divisions between the West Indian and African immigrant factions … The same theme underpins Roy Williams’ energetic new play Joe Guy at the Soho Theatre. But whereas Williams lets his drama do the talking, Kwei-Armah wants his talking to do the drama. And for that to work, I imagine you have to be directly involved in his subject. Jeremy Herrin’s production gives the dialogue every possible chance and boasts a superb cast of black theatre veterans.”
Michael Billington in the Guardian (three stars) – “Kwame Kwei-Armah's last play at the National, Fix Up, argued there is no future for a people that denies its past. His new play suggests that a fixation with history can also be corrosively damaging. While it is fascinating to see a writer pursuing his internal dialectic, at times you feel the action is rigged in pursuance of the ideas … Kwei-Armah's arguments are fascinating, and, like Roy Williams in Joe Guy, he acknowledges the tensions that exist within the all-too-glibly hyphenated Afro-Caribbean community. But, while dealing with internal racial divisions, his play suffers from its own form of confusion … I applaud the play for its honesty in tackling abrasive issues, while feeling it introduces too many themes … By the end of the evening, one's head is swimming. Jeremy Herrin's production contains a fine performance from Don Warrington, full of ruined grandeur, as the disintegrating hero … There is no denying that the play is full of dramatic power. But the big question is how one reconciles the need to understand the past without being submerged by it. Kwei-Armah seems to have no very clear answer.”
Charles Spencer in the Daily Telegraph - “Kwame Kwei-Armah is a writer unafraid to wade in where more cautious writers might fear to tread. His first play for the National Theatre, Elmina's Kitchen, was a scorching study of black-on-black violence in Hackney. His second, Fix Up, proved disappointingly lukewarm, but he is back in blazing form with this final panel in his dramatic triptych about the African-Caribbean experience in England … What turns the play into a blazing inferno is the way it marries the political and the personal … As the play progresses, the idea of a united black community begins to appear ever more improbable. To judge by the engaged response of black members of the first-night audience, there was much here that they recognised, while to a white outsider like myself, the play's candour and emotional clout proved thrilling. Jeremy Herrin directs a sparky production, in which ideas fizz and emotions sizzle, and there is a tremendous performance from Don Warrington as the enraged Lear of his own divided kingdom … Provocative, touching and often wildly entertaining, Statement of Regret proves a play of real panache.”
Paul Taylor in the Independent – “This latest work by the award-winning playwright Kwame Kwei-Armah has a wilder, funnier, more dangerous and ultimately more tragic piece struggling to get out – but it's caught by the ankle in the trap of a 1970s debate-style drama … What this material needs is the reckless, searching, no-holds-barred talents of a Patrick Marber in his Howard Katz and Don Juan in Soho mode. Instead, for the most part, Kwei-Armah deploys the spell-it-all-out, tidy-minded methods of a David Edgar. Premiered in a production of woefully stiff staginess by Jeremy Herrin … the play raises important issues … The trouble, though, is the presentation. There's a leaden, creaky explicitness to the writing and the production. Nothing is oblique, or free enough to take itself by surprise.”
Nicholas de Jongh in the Evening Standard (two stars) – “Four years ago, in his fine play Elmina's Kitchen, Kwei-Armah transmitted a prophetic warning about the state of black-on-black relations in an impoverished tranche of down-at-heel London where drugs, violence and sons without salient father-figures are caught in fatal combination. A similar sense of concern animates the far more ambitious Statement of Regret. Yet great aspirations prove Kwei-Armah's undoing as a playwright. In his latest play he tries to show how black people's experience of trauma, through centuries of slavery, segregation and torture has contributed to the disturbed mindsets of their present-day heirs. He owes this fascinating notion to Joy DeGruy Leary, author of Post-Traumatic Slave Syndrome, who articulates the theory far more persuasively than Kwei-Armah dramatises it in windily aimless, tear-jerking plots and sub-plots that are left hanging … Director Jeremy Herrin's production, notable for its acting, particularly Javone Prince's angry young man, revels over-much in Kwaku's melodramatic decline and fall which belongs to an old-style theatre of tears.”
- by Terri Paddock
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