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A CurtainUp London Review
The Artistic Director of the Young Vic, David Lan directs and Jeremy Herbert’s exciting design and lighting has put the play at two levels, the upper lit by a neon box which feeds back the success of the participant with green, amber and red lights. Downstairs are five doors for a myriad variety of entrances and exits. A stair case is trudged up for each individual audition or test.
The cast are named by colour and age, Older Black, Black, Younger Black, Dull Brown, Brown and Yellow, so even the naming of these men is alienating. What thery compete for is “the main thing.” They meet in a waiting room and discuss the process, the rejection, the number of call backs and the odds against them getting chosen. They talk about the unfairness of the process, about light skinned actors getting work more easily and about how the process drags you down, tiredness “tryin’ a get by in a game that’s rigged,” and how some turn to drink.
The tasks the actors are instructed to perform are mundane and quirky, often pointless and inexplicable, humiliating rather than fun. The image of one actor placing a rubber glove over his head and inflating it until he appears to be a cloned cockerel-man is unforgettable and a great party trick. One actor arrives with a chair and a roll of sticky tape in the black tool boxes the actors all carry. His “thing” is to strap himself up while sitting in the chair, very physical contortions are needed and very funny, but sadly gets the red light from the disembodied selector.
Towards the final scene, the door surrounds pivot, spinning and Brown (Anthony Welsh) can’t find an opening. Younger Black arrives (Michael Oku) with all the bravado and enthusiasm of a newcomer only to find that Black (Daniel Francis) now is taking the patient waiting of Older Black (Leo Wringer) in the earlier scenes.
The performances are as complex and varied as the writing is innovative. It uses surrealism to convey the emotional roller coaster of an actor’s precarious life, heightened for actors from ethnic minorities with the backward British resistance to colour blind casting. Martello-White makes his points without heavy handed didactic moralising. By contrast with the failure of many is the joy of the green light, the success conveyed with electronic applause and celebratory classical music. In the final scene Brown (Anthony Welsh) visits the very successful Yellow (Howard Charles) in his millionaire’s mansion overlooking the bright lights of a city after getting “the greenest of green lights - the big pimping – leave the building never to return thing.”
Nathaniel Martello-White could not have known it, but his play opening during the run of Red Velvet at the Tricycle about the black nineteenth century actor Ira Aldridge resonates. I look forward to more from this young playwright who has made us think about a black actor’s life with unusual insight.
Retold by Tina Packer of Shakespeare & Co.
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