ROYAL EXCHANGE THEATRE/CONTACT
Written by Inua Ellams
Directed by Bijan Sheibani
Ropes of light like tresses of a weave overlap and knot into bunches as they encircle the gallery of the Royal Exchange – the result is a kind of messy beauty that intrigues. Untangle it and it might be neat and tidy but somehow less than it was before. Such are the tales from 6 barber shops ranging from Peckham in London to Lagos, Johannesburg and Kampala. Writer Inua Ellams understands the value of the barbers’ chair as a confessional and uses it to chronicle the communality of black male global experiences. In a trip that criss- crosses timezones and cultures Ellams takes a razor sharp look at mental health stigma and the struggle with identity, racism and integration.
Barber Shop Chronicles is a riotous, colourful affair full of life and bristling with energy. There is music, singing, dancing, universally familiar bar room jokes, and there are haircuts to fit births, deaths marriages and job interviews. Every shop has the obligatory chair and mirror in which to relax and contemplate your inner world and your outer appearance. Every shop has men chatting about football and their favourite team, reminiscences about countries left behind or expectations about those to be visited. Politics and politicians are scrutinised and families are spoken of with affection or with hurt and frustration. The brilliance of this beautifully constructed drama is the little stories told and the small kindnesses demonstrated that are always present in every shop in every city.
At the heart of this work is the need for communication and the sharing of experiences. It is a basic human requirement for good mental health. Sadly statistics suggest that in Britain black men are 17 more times likely than their white equivalents to be diagnosed with a serious mental illness and young black men are six times more likely to be sectioned. At one point a young man questions how to appear as a strong black man while acknowledging the absence of his own father since he was six. Emmanuel, his barber quietly reflects on the core of this dilemma as he speaks of men living outside our countries often failed by our fathers and our politicians. In understanding the value of vulnerability when letting someone touch you with a razor Ellams approaches his characters like a barber, from “a place of delicacy, of gentleness, of absolute trust.” The result is a perfectly pitched script that speaks a language as universally valuable as the Nigerian Pidgin that cuts through any need to go through English to understand each other.
Royal Exchange Theatre and CONTACT
Co-produced by Fuel, the National Theatre and Leeds Playhouse
Royal Exchange Theatre 7th – 23rd March 2019
Images by Marc Brenner
Written by Annie Baker
Directed by Bijan Sheibani
Circle Mirror Transformation is the award winning second play by Annie Baker who won the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for drama. Staged in a recreation centre it covers a six week amateur drama class where five ordinary people come together through drama exercises and during refreshment breaks. The genius lies in the inherent simplicity and ordinariness of everything and everyone. Baker writes with delicacy and acute insight into the human need for connection and attachment. How we circle around each other and seek out what is familiar or attractive, how we mirror each other in order to attach and how we all experience transformation in the process.
This small town drama group has strong echoes of group therapy sessions. All five actors give great performances and director Bijan Sheibani ensures the group dynamics that Baker has nurtured get fully explored. Amelia Bullmore utterly embodies the facilitator Marty who is all sinewy energy and positive encouragement, with a lot more going on behind that calm facade. James, her husband is likable, steady and reliable yet seemimgly, easily swayed by a fresh pretty face. Lauren is sixteen and equally diffident, difficult and delightful as she grows from child to adult. Teresa is all fluid grace and beauty but internally is floundering and ambivalent about her place in the world. Con O’Neill gives newly divorced Schultz a rich blend of blundering, puppyish exuberance and affection, coupled with a whiff of hangdog desperation.
Designer Samal Blak has created a set for the community centre space that is instantly recognisable in its ordinariness and utilitarianism. The brilliance is in the mirrored wall that reflect images of the actors on stage and of the audience. In watching them we see ourselves reflected in all their interactions, in their hopes and disappointments. We see both the complexity and the often, utter randomness of how we connect in our world.
The sound and lighting sync perfectly in a way the characters never can. The nine strip lights are always in unison with the bars of sound – controlled and predictable unlike the counting exercise where the characters repeatedly fail. A perfect indicator of how difficult it is to make our mark with each other while giving others the space and security to dare to make theirs.
Circle Mirror Transformation is special because it shines a brilliant and tender light on the fragility of all of us, in our need for connection, acceptance and love. It highlights the circle of life which is in constant flux even when there is apparent stillness. Sometimes I think everything I do is propelled by my fear of being alone.
At HOME 2-17 March 2018