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Finborough Theatre

Summer Season 2010 presents

The European Premiere of

 

In the Blood

Natasha Bain in In the Blood

 

by Suzan-Lori Parks

 

Director: Daniel Burgess

 

Designer: Joe Schermoly

 

Lighting Design: Ben Blaber

 

Sound Design: Edward Lewis

 

Costume Design: Mia Gray

 

Finborough Theatre

 

17 Aug – 4 Sept 2010

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


 

 

A review by James Buxton for EXTRA! EXTRA!

Suzan-Lori Parks is the first African American woman to receive the Pulitzer Prize in Drama for her Broadway hit TopDog/UnderDog. In the Blood is loosely based on Nathaniel Hawthorn's 1850 novel The Scarlet Letter.

Hester (Natasha Bain) lives with her five children, Jabber (Clifford Samuel), Bully, (Frances Ashman) Trouble, (Richard Pepple), Beauty (Eleanor Fanyinka) and Baby (Vinta Morgan) under a bridge in New York City. For Hester, life is a constant struggle for survival as she attempts to hold her family together on the streets. When she is visited by a woman from welfare (Frances Ashman), she is told they are unwilling to continue supporting her and she is threatened with the absolute ultimatum: provide the name of the man who fathered your last baby or undergo a forced hysterectomy. Hester's desperation to support her family forces her to find this man, leading her to the limits of extremity, which ends in one of the most shocking denouements seen on stage.

In a concrete wall, a small gap with a rag covering it forms the entrance into their dwelling, obscured from view. In front of us, crates, cardboard boxes and wire spools are the detritus that form their furniture, where each object, from a piece of cardboard used to iron clothes, to old cans crushed for money are exploited for their practical potential. Nothing goes to waste; yet, Hester wastes away as she carries out the endless domestic chores for her five children, all under fourteen, with no support. Bain's performance is flawless - as the fearsome, illiterate, matriarch, attired in a dirty apron, tattered cardigan and bandanna, a police truncheon hangs from her waist. Her large eyes shine with pride, as she vigorously cleans her children's shoes, determined to have them appear presentable, despite the squalid setting of their home.  Yet her wide eyes also bely her naivety, bulging out of her face, moist, with a desperate sincerity and desire to please, they are intensely affecting. Bain's displays great control and presence as she moves from adoring mother to furious tyrant with a profoundly disturbing impact. She creates within the audience, a conflicting combination of sympathy and fear where one is never sure how much more she can take, before she will erupt.

The actors playing her children also double up as the various characters that attempt to help or hinder her. However all are united by self interest, foremost of a sexual nature, always presented under the guise of assistance to allow them to exploit Hester further. Parks gives Hester's children names that describe their natural temperaments, in a modern take on the medieval morality plays.
Richard Pepple plays the road-side Doctor and her son Trouble. As the Doctor he appears in a white shirt and tie, wearing a board that reads “SPAY” exemplifying the system's atavistic attitude to the neutering of the homeless, in order to curb the strain for income support. Pepple's Doctor is a tough, straight talking man who talks of how Hester has given herself up to him in such a way, it was as if she was giving him back something he had lent her. Power & domination combine in Pepple to create a sinister character whose motives for helping Hester stem from his own selfish desire, best illustrated by his lingering probes under her skirt with a torch. As Trouble, Pepple acts as a rude, outspoken, rapscallion with limitless energy. At the start of the play he steals a policeman's truncheon which Hester confiscates with woeful consequences.

Frances Ashman plays Welfare and Bully. Ashman as Welfare carries herself confidently in a smart red skirt and jacket. She exudes a prim professionalism as she orders Hester to give her a backrub and comb her hair while explaining the possibility of enforcing a hysterectomy on her. Ashman shows welfare at its most exploitative and unsympathetic and reveals in a monologue how she has used Hester in a threesome with her husband. On the other hand, as Bully, she portrays a feisty, irascible girl in a vest and battered converse who wakes in the middle of the night, unable to unclench her fists - a symbolic, physical manifestation of her own mother's anxiety and stress which she has inherited.

Clifford Samuel plays Chili and Jabber. Chilli is father to Hester's first child and returns in a bid to marry her due to his financial success but fundamentally loveless life. Samuel's Chili looks like he could have stepped out of The Scarlet Letter, in a green blazer, waistcoat and pocket watch. Samuel shows Chili's OCD through his consistent checks of his watch, and his bumbling questions as he continually asks Hester to guess the time. Chili wants control over Hester and offers his hand on the condition that she will obey his wishes in all matters. Samuel's offer of marriage is cruelly withdrawn however in a harrowing scene, where he strips Hester of the immaculately clean wedding dress and ring he initially bestows upon her after he is confronted by the rest of her fatherless children, who have no place in the fantasy relationship he has constructed. As Jabber, Samuel portrays the eldest and most mature son. He tenderly attempts to teach his mother how to write the letter A on the wall of their home where the word slut is gratified on. In one of Parks most ingenious aspects, she shows the vicious irony of how Jabber can read the word but not understand it and inversely how his mother can understand it but not read it.

Eleanor Fanyinka plays Amiga Gringa and Beauty. Fanyinka's Amiga struts provocatively across the stage in a tiny black dress and heels, leaving nothing to the imagination, her lips garishly glossed in vivid crimson. Amiga manipulates Hester to make herself money, and confesses in her monologue to the “lucrative” idea of creating a lesbian porn film with Hester. Fanyinka carries herself with a slutty arrogance, her power derived from her natural assets but also the sly influence she exerts on Hester as her “friend” in order to exploit her for financial gain. It is almost as if seeing her so destitute is a boost to her own ego. Fanyinka portrays the pigtailed Beauty with cute childishness, as she greedily seeks maternal affection and indulges in petty sibling rivalry.

Vinta Morgan as the Reverend and Baby doubles up in two roles which are diametrically opposed. Morgan as the Reverend in blue suit and tie puts on an exceptional performance as a charismatic preacher. Morgan boils over with evangelical zeal, invoking his followers in passionate outbursts from his soapbox in front of his soon to be built church. However when Hester enters the picture, begging for money, he breaks out in sweats, unable to meet her eye and delivers a profusion of excuses to avoid paying, delaying her ad infinitum despite carrying a shoebox full of dollar bills. His hypocrisy knows no bounds as he parades round carrying a cross, but is terrified of being found out by Welfare which leads him to violently threaten Hester. Burgess stages this scene so well in the intimate space it almost feels like an affront to the audience's impotent voyeurism. Morgan as the baby is unbelievably accurate. The fact of seeing a grown man in an all in one Romper suit sucking his thumb and lazing his head on his mother's lap is enjoyably surreal, but only works so well due to Morgan's tremendous dexterity as an actor.

For the most part the lighting remains a straw colour but at intervals a startling white shock of light is employed. This light indicates a point at which a character gives a monologue, filled with their own internal justifications for their individual exploitation of Hester.

The exploitation and suffering that the dispossessed endure today are the central themes of In the Blood. Parks shows how easily an uneducated, illiterate woman can be taken advantage of and manipulated for people's own sexual or financial greed and stores no faith in the Welfare Officers, the Doctors and the Reverends, the so called defenders of social, physical and spiritual sickness of our age - for Parks many are hypocrites only concerned with satisfying their own agendas. Bain painfully evokes Hester's ignorance and naivety, proving them to be the exact constituents ripe for exploitation, yet her predicament is partly self inflicted as it stems directly from her own desperate need to be loved, which in turn is the reason for her sleeping with numerous men and having so many kids.

The acting is of a prodigiously high quality and the doubling up creates an intriguing duality as the actors convey with unnerving realism the innocence and insouciance of children, contrasted with the malignant, Machiavellian nature of their adult character. The playhas a neat circularity within it, as Parks ties it up with the ensemble voicing the dominant emotions of jealousy, lust and stinginess which pervade the work.

In the Blood is a devastatingly powerful play, that spotlights issues going on outside our own doorsteps, issues that perhaps are easier to avoid than engage with; as Charles Baudelaire proclaims in his poem To the Reader - “And like a pet, we feed our tame remorse/ As beggars take to nourishing their lice.” These sentiments seem to echo throughout this play as Parks brings to the stage the most fearsome matriarch since the time of Euripides.

 

 

 

Finborough Theatre


118 Finborough Road
 London SW10 9ED
Telephone 020 7244 7439
Box Office 0844 847 1652 

Tuesday, 17 August – Saturday, 4 September 2010
Tuesday to Sunday evenings at 7.30pm. 

Prices for Week 1 (17-22 August 2010) – Tickets £13, £9 concessions, except Tuesday Evenings £9 all seats, and Saturday evenings £13 all seats. Previews (17 and 18 August) £9 all seats.

 

 

 

 

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