With Ionesco and Max Frisch at the Royal Court, Fernando Arrabal any day now at the Gate, Notting Hill, and Jean Genet revived out at Stratford East, we are in the middle of a fascinating period of re-visiting the European avant-garde of half a century ago, when Beckett had re-defined modern drama in a post-war vision of apocalypse.
Genet’s The Blacks, first seen here at the Royal Court in 1961, is a play-within-a-play: a tribunal of white authority figures (black actors in masks) witnesses a company of black actors performing a ceremonial ritual designed to embarrass a white audience. A white woman has been killed. But something “real” is happening off-stage: a black traitor has been executed by his own people.
At Stratford, the “remix” by the single-named duo of director/designer Ultz and composer Excalibah adds another layer by attacking the minority whites in a majority audience of local blacks and Asians. It adds a fascinating frisson, but rather defeats the point of the exercise.
Despite occasional moments of real beauty and power, the show’s a dog’s dinner of rap and hip-hop, riffs approximating to Genet’s gloriously over-the-top script, with huge yawning dead moments on the stage that leave the audience bemused and baffled.
Instead of Genet’s satire on French colonialism in Africa, we have British imperialism in the Commonwealth, a change that doesn’t make much sense, apart from the excuse for Tameka Empson to play a hilarious stumpy Her Majesty and to sit on the edge of the stage, bring up the house lights and ask, “What are you looking for, you blacks?”
Empson and the other stooges enter onto their raised platform demanding that we stand for the National Anthem (nobody was so doing until then). Above Excalibah’s deejay post, a banner reads “Apologise” (presumably, along with Ken Livingstone, for slavery), a bit of an insult in the context of the “right-on” black-populated Theatre Royal crowd.
The show ambles along aimlessly, lit up by the remarkable, sweet-singing Rosie Wilson as Virtue, some pretty neat rapping from Nathan Clough’s craven missionary and the powerful Kat Francois’ delivery of a version of Genet’s famous catalogue speech, forecasting black teachers, black chandeliers, a black president in the Black House and black as the new white.
Some of Robert David MacDonald’s fine translation (first made for the brilliant Genet retrospective at the Glasgow Citizens in 1982) shows through, but too much is swamped in generalised rapping beats and dissipated in the wooliness of the staging. Messy, but interesting.