Review: The Royale (Bush Theatre at the Tabernacle)

”Orange is the New Black” writer Marco Ramirez’s play returns following a sell-out run last year

Never forget that sports stories aren’t simply about sport. They show us the shape of the human spirit. At the heart of Marco Ramirez’s boxing drama is this: a single black man goes into a symbolic fight against a white opponent knowing that, if he wins – which he will – others will bear the backlash. Jay 'The Sport' Jackson’s victory in the ring will hurt those outside of it, those that can’t fight back, those that haven’t his privileges and protections. Just before the bout, his sister warns him as much: "I think you up and forgot about the rest of us."

This isn’t about boxing. This is about Barack Obama. The first black heavyweight champion of the world is a cipher for the first black president. When white pride is hurt, it reaches for its weapons. When old power gets dented, it doubles down. Obama’s eight years ended with the biggest civil rights movement in half a century, and, on the day that America elected Donald Trump as President, a man endorsed by the KKK, it’s time to brace for the backlash.

The Royale‘s Jackson is based on Jack Johnson, The Galveston Giant. In 1908, he became the world’s first African American heavyweight champion. Like Johnson, Nicholas Pinnock‘s fighter is an ostentatious soul: a showboater in the ring and a slickster out of it. He stays in whites-only hotels, and sleeps with white women. Though he carries the hopes of black America on his shoulders, he’s intent on hauling himself out of it. His old trainer Wynton (Jude Akuwudike) stumps up a metaphor. As a young men, he fought The Royale: a blindfolded slugfest between six black men, the last of whom standing scooped up whatever change the white crowd had slung into the ring.

Madani Younis‘s production looks incredible: like an oak-smoked old photograph, stained in sepia. On a square wooden stage, a lick of stage smoke curls around the actors’ toned bodies. They’re lusciously lit by James Whiteside with soft golden overheads, and Lucie Pankhurst’s danced fight sequences land with poise and precision: muscled bodies striking daguerrotype poses. Everything’s tactile: the thud of leather on leather, the claps from ringside supporters. Pinnock winds up his laces and binds up his hands. The Royale seduces at every turn.

Such beauty is dangerous. Ramirez’s writing luxuriates where it ought to lacerate. Everything about The Royale – from its underdog plotline to its crisp, croaky dialogue – comes through the mangle of a thousand sports movies. It beautifies boxing, but worse than that, it beautifies racism. The Royale takes the blood out of both.

The racism it shows is the stuff of storyboards: its rough edges sanded down, its pain made palatable; an abstract bad thing we can all lazily condemn. You don’t feel the threat of gunmen at Jackson’s weigh-in, only their place in the plot. In regurgitating old tropes, The Royale loses sight of reality and, in doing so, lets that reality sneak back in. This only reinforces, it never resists.

Welcome to the backlash. Keep your guard up.

The Royale runs at the Tabernacle, Notting Hill until 26 November.