In bringing The House That Will Not Stand to UK audiences only a few months after it debuted at an American university, the Tricycle’s artistic director Indhu Rubasingham has moved with nimble confidence.
It’s a sure decision. Marcus Gardley‘s play is mature, lively and lyrical; though best of all its setting in the home of a "free woman of colour" in 1830’s Louisiana feels original. If the play is not quite inspired – you can feel the zombie hand of academic theory occasionally guiding the plot – it’s certainly thought provoking.
In the wake of her husband’s death (literally since his corpse is laid out on stage throughout) matriarch Beatrice desperately tries to hold together a household that includes her three headstrong daughters, a slave pining for her own freedom and in the inevitable attic, Beatrice’s mad sister, Marie Josephine. Yet having carved out a home that she sees as a sanctuary – a consequence of her position as a plaçage (a status, legacy of Lousiana’s former French colonial rulers, by which mixed-race mistresses could purchase their freedom) – Beatrice is threatened not only by US law, with its binary racial distinctions and her jealous, scheming rival La Veuve, but by the very people she is trying to save. Oh yes, and also there’s an irritated ghost whose role will either charm or possibly annoy, depending on how you prefer your metaphors.
I’m not certain this production quite captures Gardley’s poetry and at times there’s a slightly cautious, sitcom-like bonhomie to proceedings, a powerful antidote to narrative tension. Nevertheless Rubasingham has assembled a very strong cast, with Martina Laird, as Beatrice, an exceptional lead; her scenes with Michele Austin, as her enemy La Veuve, especially crackle.
The House That Will Not Stand certainly complicates received views about racial identity (fans of intersectionality and the like will happily be able to dip into its many winding cross currents) but more crucially it’s fun. Though a little too neat to be a classic this a play that deserves and should find a good audience and it’s great to see in the UK this soon.