You walk in to a homely, rough-hewn room, knocked together out of blondewood with guns racked on the walls, bright shiny bunting across the ceiling and long tables down the sides. From the moment of that arrival to its devastating conclusion, Daniel Fish's production of Oklahoma! destabilises and surprises you.
It is the most thorough rethinking of Rodgers and Hammerstein that you are ever likely to see, a sensational reassessment of a classic show that both asserts its greatness and casts it in an entirely fresh light. I think it is a masterpiece.
It's been in Fish's mind, being honed and refined, ever since he first mounted a student production at Bard College in New York state in 2007. It reached Broadway in 2018, and now – finally – arrives in London with two original cast members and Arthur Darvill and Anoushka Lucas leading the British contingent as Curly and Laurey, the young wannabe lovers whose romance is at the centre of the tale.
Fish's genius is to locate the toughness at the heart of this story of a pioneer community, on the verge of statehood in land that was once Indian territory, banding together to assert its strength. It's not just Laura Jellinek and Grace Laubacher's community hall setting that makes this point. It's also the stripped back score, orchestrated by Daniel Kluger, played by a bluegrass band of banjo, drum, bass, cello, violin, mandolin and guitars. The songs retain their power to rouse, but you hear them afresh.
Within this embrace, the cast, in contemporary shirts and denim, perform in ways that are both naturalistic and stylised. They are never not conscious of the audience, and they deliver some songs and some lines through hand-held microphones, but their characters are entirely realised and felt. Their natures are thoroughly examined. Nothing about any of them is taken for granted – they are capable of being many things at once. Aunt Eller (the wonderful Liza Sadovy), normally a jovial creature, is a clear-eyed, hard-headed woman, prepared to suspend the rules to get her way and preserve her tribe; Curly in Darvill's steely performance, is a jealous, charming chancer rather than just a straight-forward hero.
Crucially, Jud Fry, usually a sinister, threatening figure is played Patrick Vaill (who has been with the show since its student days) as a muddled misfit, sincere in his longing for a better life, desperate to be a part of things. The sadness and pain that floods his face at his perpetual rejection and the intensity of his feelings for Laurey make him a nearly tragic figure. This means that Laurey, embodied by Lucas with a voice as clear as a bell and emotion flooding through her face, is faced with a real choice between him and Curly. They embody different directions that her life could take.
I had never heard before how clearly her line "I want things I've heard of that I've never had before" echoes Jud's despairing longing for "all of the things I wish for." Nor had I noticed, until Fish's subtle direction (assisted in the UK by Jordan Fein) stressed that this love triangle is a skein of miscommunication. Laurey and Curly don't listen to each other; Jud specifically tells Laurey that he told her what he felt but she "didn't listen."
The production carefully sets these complications against the second, lighter love triangle between Ado Annie (Marisha Wallace, charming and magnificent), a girl who just can't say no when it comes to her two suitors – the haplessly dense Will Parker (played with comic precision by James Davis, also from the original cast) and the clever Alik Hakim, whom Stavros Demetraki turns into a smart and attractive schemer.
The production is full of audacious touches – a pugnacious dream ballet, full of ache and passion, choreographed by John Heginbotham and beautifully performed by Marie-Astrid Mence in a top that reads "Dream Baby, Dream"; the scene in the smokehouse where Curly suggests Jud hangs himself, acted in darkness, with closeups of the men's faces beamed in huge video black and white on the wall. Scott Zielinski's lighting and Drew Levy's sound design both keep springing changes of mood.
But its greatest triumph is that it can be so many things at once. It is a dark version of Oklahoma! but it is also supremely funny and life-enhancing. It is political about the world we live in – Curly's line about "World's changing, got to change with it" carries such ambiguous weight. But it doesn't allow any overall message to dominate. It pays each scene, each song and each character the courtesy of treating them as if they were freshly minted, revealing their complexities and contradictions.
In this sense, it is truly Shakespearean – and absolutely revelatory.