Elysium Theatre Company have once again shown what high calibre work they can produce. Great story telling from South African playwright Athol Fugard with sound direction from Jake Murray and powerful performances from both male leads ensure that this is a great piece of theatre . A journey through trauma to possible redemption, Playland explores what happens to the human psyche when men with a strong moral code find themselves doing unspeakable things and then have to find a way to live with the consequences.
Set in Playland, a travelling fairground, the action takes place on New Year’s Eve 1989 when war veteran Gideon La Roux meets the fairground watchman Martinus Zulu. Behind the gaudy splendour of the lights and wurlitzer music is the deeply reflective Martinus alone in his monastic space. This bleak setting eventually serves as a kind of confessional for both men. The absolute power of this performance is not just that it is about the unravelling of a man with PTSD, but that it is a man who fought in a war of Apartheid where soldiers were forced to take a vow of silence and where truth was white washed or blacked out. Somehow Gideon is pulled towards another man who is guarding his own secret pain and who has also broken the sixth commandment.
This is a perfectly balanced double act from two actors who were both also excellent in a previous Elysium production Jesus Hopped the A Train. Danny Solomon is veteran Gideon, a man whose initial bonhomie hides deep psychological wounds that slowly start to surface as the clock ticks down to a new year. Solomon is all nervous energy and keen, darting eyes while he attempts to engage the recalcitrant security guard. He is engaging and charming as he tells stories of his pigeons and his childhood but effortlessly shifts into menace and madness as he attempts to gaslight his reluctant companion into violence. He increasingly reminds me of early Jack Nicholson in the ways he can play with energy, tempo and mood.
Faz Singhateh counters Solomon with a wonderfully controlled and restrained performance. Stiff with righteous indignation, every sinew is coiled as his Martinus watches and waits like a wary, wounded animal. The growing tension between both men slowly builds, becoming palpable as their stories are told and they find common ground in their actions but struggle with their opposing perceptions of redemption and forgiveness.
The writing is evocative and brutal in its description of the horrors of the Border War, but is also tender as it reveals the youthful innocence of childhood. Simple but effective staging with rich lighting and a fabulous fairground soundscape add additional pleasure to this production. Everything is thoughtfully and sensitively done, ensuring that 30 years on this tale of redemption and forgiveness still feels timely and relevant.
This is the Northern première of Jesus Hopped The A Train,first performed in New York in 2000, and then at the Donmar Warehouse in London in 2002. Durham based Elysium Theatre Company have produced a startling and provocative take on this powerful play about moral responsibility and the American penal system. The themes of redemption and damnation are at the forefront of this play and Director Jake Murray ensures his terrific cast embody the complexities of finding goodness even in the most seemingly “monstrous” individuals.
The setting is Rikers Island Prison in New York. Two apparently very different men are imprisoned there and come to know each other during their shared one hour of fresh air each day. Angel is young and naive, new to the prison system he is not a hardened recidivist and seems initially bewildered by all the fuss. All I did was shoot him in the ass! –it is his bad luck that Rev Kim later dies on the operating table. Lucius is awaiting the outcome of his appeal against extradition to Florida for the death penalty having murdered 8 people.
The two actors playing Angel and Lucius do a tremendous job and are perfect foils for each other. Danny Solomon is all lanky, fluid limbs and is perfectly cast as the naive, coltish youth who is initially credulous that he is actually in trouble at all. Solomon moves from his desperate fumbling prayers and cockiness toward his state-appointed lawyer to a fragile, shell-shocked rape victim and then to a coming of age as he is tutored to navigate the legal system and reflect with Lucius about the nature of freedom and redemption.
Faz Singhateh has all the on stage charisma of a cult leader such as the ill fated Rev Kim. His Lucius is larger than life and glows like the sun he has grown to love. Apparently at ease with accepting his crimes and confident of his redemption through Jesus, he is desperate to avoid the death penalty having finally found his own inner peace. Ironically he seems more free in his hour outside each day than his mean spirited guard Valdez is ever likely to be.
The other characters provide all the shades of dark and light that enhance the message of what is good or bad, right or wrong, and how do we accept or assign blame. Lucius is a mass murderer but he is kind and perceptive and has genuine empathy. He is also a victim of early abuse and has a mental health diagnosis. Does he deserve to die for his crimes or be supported in his redemption? The young lawyer wants to do good for Angel through guilt that her skills can get hardened recidivists out of jail, yet ultimately her pride and arrogance will add years to his sentence. Valdez is casually sadistic yet operates within the law. Charlie D’Amico is apparently too soft to succeed as a guard yet surely his humanity is also a positive in a prison environment.
The set design is strikingly effective in its simplicity. Louis Price has created the starkness of a high security jail while also creating a sense of personal freedom when the men are outdoors even in their cages. The slash of barbed wire fencing through the cheery brightness of the star spangled banner is a potent image.
Jesus Hopped The A Train is an excellent piece of theatre that provokes debate on many topics. It highlights the complexities of human nature and the unfairness of the lottery system in the American penal system. It also beautifully highlights how precious are the small elements of personal freedom whether we are praying on our knees, feeling the sun on our skin or watching a bird fly past. The human spirit is bigger than any concrete cell could ever try to hold or suppress. We are all capable of finding our own redemption if we look within.