AlmeidaTheatre | ★★★★★
Racial injustice is being given more stage time than ever before. Current productions on this theme include include Aaron Sorkin’s acclaimed adaptation of To Kill a Mockingbird in the West End and the Bristol Old Vic’s The Meaning of Zong by Hamilton star Giles Terera which is about atrocities aboard a slave ship. There are many others.
It is against this background that African American writer Jeremy O. Harris’s unpredictable play makes its UK debut. It stars Danish star Claes Bang who is best known here for his title role performance in the BBC adaptation of Dracula. But anyone who saw his film The Square in which he plays the curator of an art gallery can be forgiven for seeing Harris’s play as a companion piece to that film. Because here Bang is Andre, an absurdly wealthy art collector whose modernist home in Beverly Hills serves as a kind of private gallery.
The walls are festooned with modern art masters such as O’Keefe, Lichtenstein, Sherman and Basquiat. Even his house (design Matt Saunders) looks like a Hockney complete with pool whose length stretches the width of the Almeida’s stage.
Andre’s latest acquisition is not so much an art but an artist. Franklin, played by the mesmerising Terique Jarrett, is an African American rising star who was raised in the God-fearing traditions of the deep South but who is utterly at home in the achingly sophisticated upper echelons of Californian high society.
There is an air of decadence. Andre and Franklin spend much of the time naked by the pool. Their conversation about art is as arch as it is articulate with Franklin able to dent the aesthetic choices of his lover. Aren’t Andre’s choices just a little gauche, asks Franklin. Basquiat paintings exist to disrupt. Putting them together in a bedroom, as Andre has, diminishes the ability of the works to subvert art conventions.
If you are interested in art Harris’s play is full of such interesting chat. Nothing on this level was said in The Collaboration Anthony McCarten’s entertaining but relatively easy play about Jean-Michel Basquiat and Andy Warhol. Harris’s work by contrast is much more demanding.
In Danya Taymor’s production a gospel chorus serenades the action. The unabashed nudity collides with surrealism, comedy with drama and there is a strain of satire as Jenny Rainsford’s gallery owner Alessia skewers art world jargon and narcissism.
With the arrival of Franklin’s mother Zora (Sharlene Whyte) ahead of her son’s new exhibition all the elements of a play about a white establishment exploiting a black talent appear to be in place. But Harris has other ideas. Any assumptions about who has the power in the relationship with the white, obscenely rich Andre is ingeniously subverted.
In style and theatrical convention this is a play that confounds the regular theatregoer’s every possible expectation, much like the best modern art.