Tuesday, 18 June 2013

Theatre review: The Amen Corner

Marianne Jean-Baptiste makes a rare return to the London stage to take the lead in James Baldwin's 1965 play The Amen Corner at the National. She's sister Margaret, pastor at a Harlem church, with very strict rules she expects her flock to live by (despite the fact that one of her parishioners is desperate for work, she refuses to condone him accepting a job driving a whiskey delivery truck, even though he wouldn't be drinking himself.) Her style of preaching seems to have made her popular in the church but the first sign of weakness prompts the animosity of the church elders to come to the surface. Sister Margaret's absence for a week is the first thing to rile them - her trip to visit an affiliate church in Philadelphia makes them wonder why they're paying for it out of church funds. But it's her family life that'll prove the real Achilles heel.

The pastor's son David (Eric Kofi Abrefa) is a talented musician who plays the piano for her services, but this is increasingly not enough for him, and he wants to follow his absent father Luke into a career in music. And when Luke himself (Lucian Msamati) returns terminally ill, Sister Margaret is forced to admit that contrary to what she's been saying it was she who left him, not the other way round - and it doesn't necessarily mean she doesn't still have feelings for him.


Rufus Norris's production is a powerhouse, on an impressive set from Ian MacNeil that intertwines the church, the pastor's home underneath it, and the city streets in one organic space. Jean-Baptiste is a strong central presence in a role that defies easy categorisation: Possessed of a firm belief that she's doing the right thing and dedicating her life's work to God, she's far from the hypocrite she's painted as when the elders make a play for her power. But she's also the architect of her own downfall - whether or not she thinks she's acting for the best, the uncompromising demands she makes of her parishioners mean she leaves herself open to being held up to an impossible standard herself.


Having a story set in and around an evangelical church means The Amen Corner is dominated by song, with frequent breaks for the gospel music that punctuates their services, and which as the accusations against Sister Margaret intensify start to be used passive-aggressively by the opposing sides in the argument. It's beautifully done but the play does get progressively darker, its opening optimism descending into everyone's different agendas. Phill found it a bit heavier than he was expecting so wasn't too taken with the second act, where Jean-Baptiste painfully puts across her character's emotional breakdown, but although it's not a light piece I found the characterisation of the lead as a tragic heroine interestingly done.


And Jean-Baptiste is backed up by some other strong performances, with Sharon D Clarke as her sister Odessa never swerving from her support, but betraying an exhaustion at having spent her life as the support network for this force of nature. On the opposing side Cecilia Noble is a scene-stealer as the virginal Sister Moore, a vision of sugary-sweetness concealing a ruthless ambition and a gleefully vicious streak. And in the middle is Abrefa as David, caught between opposing sides but more concerned with creating his own identity and life outside of his mother's church. Its uplifting opening scenes belie the bleak places it'll later take us but The Amen Corner says much about the secrets and lies (do you see?) that motivate even the best-intentioned.

The Amen Corner by James Baldwin is booking in repertory until the 14th of August at the National Theatre's Olivier.

Running time: 2 hours 40 minutes including interval.

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