Young Vic | ★★★★★
Theatre has long known that the only realism that counts is the psychological kind. Still, when sets are stripped away and actors sit waiting for their cues in full view of the audience, we marvel at how disbelief continues to be suspended.
But in the case of director Daniel Fish’s revelatory revival of Oklahoma, first seen in St Anne’s Warehouse in Brooklyn and now in London with some of the original cast, reality not only survives this pared-down almost prop-less kind of theatre, it distills it into something shockingly visceral.
When farmhand Jud Fry sexually intimidates his employer Laurey Williams, who local cowboy Curly McLain also has eyes for, the bright Oklahoma daylight is replaced by pitch dark. Even signs to the theatre’s fire escapes are extinguished. All that can be heard is the threat and intimacy of the encounter. It is like being plunged into the black chamber of a beating heart.
Mention Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein’s 1943 musical and most people think of Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin’, a song whose optimism is swelled by an orchestra in full sail. Here it is performed by Curly and his guitar; Curly played by the excellent Arthur Darvill, the poor chap who was the unwitting centre of the Royal Court’s antisemitism scandal when he played the character formerly known as Hershel Fink.
It is here, with Curly’s first strum, where you know for sure that this Oklahoma will be like no other you have ever seen. You already suspect though. The Young Vic’s main stage has been transformed by co-designers Laura Jellinek and Grace Laubacher into a plywood crucible with one of the vast surfaces bearing a pencil-light etching of an Oklahoma plain. A farmhouse here, a windmill tower there. Nothing, but nothing, but flat farmland in-between.
Tables – the kind that might be unfolded for a barn dance – line the perimeter of the oval performance space, in the middle of which sits a seven piece band. The plot hasn’t changed. Curly’s invitation to take farm girl Laurey (Anoushka Lucas) to the dance in a horse-drawn carriage – The Surrey With A Fringe On Top – is stymied when he learns that Jud (Patrick Vaill) is taking her instead.
Everyone here sees everything whether they are in the scene or not, and whether a conversation is private or not. This, the production proves, makes no difference in a small community where everyone knows each other’s business.
The show is as funny as ever. Stavros Demetraki as snake oil salesman Ali is delightfully incredulous when forced into a shotgun marriage to Ado Annie, the girl who can’t say no. As Ado, the superb Marsha Wallace reinvents the song – often a coy confession to succumbing to temptation but sung here with a conviction as stirring as a declaration of human rights.
James Davis (one of the imports from the original production) as guileless cowboy Will, who considers Ado to be rightfully his (as does she) is a marvel whether hoofing a ho-down or courting with the subtly of a lasso.
All this fun belies the hitherto undiscovered darkness of this show. It is there in the smouldering sexual chemistry generated by Darvil’s frustrated Curly and the suppressed passion of Lucas’s Laurey, but also between Laurey and the dangerous Jud, brilliantly played by the psychopathically watchful Patrick Vaill.
As he and the better-adjusted Curley square up to each other to win Laurey it is they who embody the simmering violence that has been ignored by romantic productions since 1943.
But now we know is what exists and is ready to erupt just below the surface in these badlands.