Monday 5 November 2018

theatre review: ear for eye

et tu, debbie?

ideally, if coming back to the theatre after over a week sick, i’d choose something short and fairly fluffy to ease myself back in. things don’t always work out that way though, and with an acclaimed new debbie tucker green play in my diary fluffy was never going to be on the cards; you’d have thought short would at least be a given with the usually concise tucker green at the helm, but ear for eye plays out as a two-and-a-quarter hour epic with no interval. told in three distinct parts, each of which could have been a show in its own right but which feed into each other in subtle ways, the play is a look at the black experience in both america and the uk, one of its themes (and i wouldn’t want to pretend i can unpick every layer the writer’s built into her deceptively pared-down dialogue) being the way that even though we don’t have the epidemic of police shootings that plagues african-americans, this side of the pond doesn’t necessarily have the moral high ground, and black british people feel many of the same pressures.

part 1, the longest section, has the feel of a support group, as the majority of the cast crowd around on wooden chairs to listen to the testimony of people from both sides of the atlantic, as well as scenes of conflict and frustration.

one of the reasons the play is unusually long for tucker green is that it relies heavily on repetition, versions of scenes that would appear stereotypically american finding a mirror image in the uk. so there’s a memorable opening as an american son (hayden mclean) tries to figure out the ideal way to hold his hands when approaching a white person, endlessly frustrated as his mother (sarah quist) confirms there’s no possible way that can’t be interpreted as aggressive by someone. this is later mirrored and twisted in a uk version, complicated by the fact that the son (jamal ajala) is appealing not just to his mother (anita reynolds) but also to his father’s (george eggay) conflicting opinion (the scene being partly conducted in sign language also lends an extra element of freshness to the repetition.) currently the most high-profile cast member due to his doctor who role, tosin cole shows he has range well beyond gormless companion as an at-the-end-of-his-tether young adult in conflict with nicholas pinnock’s older friend – a difference between generations being another recurring theme - over a subject that’s vague at first but becomes clearer as they return throughout the play.

part 2, a two-hander set in the us, cleverly deals with both micro-aggression and some of the biggest acts of violence by having a black female student (lashana lynch) try to discuss a mass shooting with a white male lecturer (demetri goritsas) only to get shut down at every point. on the more intimate scale, these scenes are about his ability, presumably honed through years of practice, to shut down every point she makes before she makes it (the fact that the student is female means race isn’t the only factor coming into play here) and accuse her of every aggressive behaviour he himself is displaying. on a larger scale, the point he refuses to hear is that the shooting they’re talking about was racially motivated. finally, part 3 is a film of white volunteers reading out us segregation laws, before we move to the same thing but with uk colonial laws applying to jamaica, which end up sounding no different to the more famous american examples.

the significance of part 3 is presumably that the attitudes in the first two parts didn’t come from nowhere, and the fact that those laws are in the past doesn’t mean they don’t poison the present. tucker green is one of the few directors who generally get a pass from my dislike of writers directing their own work, largely because the writing and style are so crucially interconnected. this remains true here, although for once i felt a bit of script editing wouldn’t have been a bad thing – perhaps those extra 15 minutes over the advertised running time could have been trimmed off, and with a writer so good at saying a lot in few words this progression to something more epic isn’t really an obvious one. but ear for eye has the feel of something that’s being deliberately difficult to make its point, and though that can become exhausting i think overall it works here – it is, after all, about something that’s relentless in the characters’ lives. christopher shutt’s sound design deserves a special mention for adding an atmospheric element to a show not every scene of which works, but a great many of them are strikingly memorable.

ear for eye by debbie tucker green is booking until the 24th of november at the royal court’s jerwood theatre downstairs.

running time: 2 hours 15 minutes straight through.

photo credit: stephen cummiskey.

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