REVIEW: AMERICAN TRADE
By Shaun Ajamu Hutchinson
Friday, June 17, 2011.
Tarell Alvin McCraney, who is now in the final phase of his two-year stint as the RSC's [Royal Shakespeare Company] Playwright-in-Residence, reveals his knowledge of the English theatre history.
Restoration Comedies - first seen in the 1700s – mirrored an era of exuberance after decades of sober conformity and Puritanism in the aftermath of the English Revolution. Bringing it all up to date and describing this riotous, snappy piece as a contemporary version, the critically-acclaimed McCraney uses some of the elements of older tradition – farce, slapstick and outlandish characters - to tell his story.
As the play’s director, we see Jamie Lloyd using his Donmar Warehouse experience in his first directing gig for this frenetic tale, a task which he carried out skilfully. And that’s some achievement because the intensity notch is turned up to a high level right from the start - and kept there. But for all its effervescence and quick change scenes the story - which announces itself as a challenge to assumptions about human identity - is often hidden behind the madcap misadventures of a cabal of crazy misfits.
The plot - and there is one fighting to get out - speeds along like a Usain Bolt wannabe. The character Pharus [played by Tunji Kasim] flees his native New York to escape Jules [Clarence Smith] – a hip hop mogul on the down low. He takes up a job in London offered by long lost Aunt Marian’s [Sheila Reid – alcoholic drink in hand megalomaniac] public relations company, and ends up vying for control with a distant cousin Valentina [Sophie Russell – manipulative as much as vulnerable]. Along the way, we meet that coterie of lunatic London types – some recognisable, some not. The RSCs 18-strong ensemble for American Trade - together now for almost two years and about to end their stint with a New York tour of the classics – take it all in their stride, revelling in the anarchistic madness of it all.
Versatile Debbie Corley’s Girl Wonder is hilarious, as is confident and assertive Adam Burton’s narrator Sherman Kanderebitz [surely an Ali G/Tim Westwood caricature]. Simone Saunders seductive and neurotic Lady Syl and Geoffrey Freshwater as degenerate, leering and slimy Lord Fairway also stand out.
Thankfully concise at just over 80 minutes American Trade doesn’t make for a delicate evening’s entertainment; nor does it claim to be. And although done for laughs – with bondage scenes and elderly gentlemen in bright blue thongs - it still causes disquiet to this sensitive soul, only reinforced when of three sexualised scenes, two feature Black women, with all the disturbing stereotypes such depictions perpetuate.
There are some penetrating flashes of inspiration in the dialogue but they are too often hidden behind the brash, loud performances. This is a pity because McCraney’s lyricism and incisive observations have to compete with the noise on the stage!
But does it make for an entertaining show? This writer prefers his theatre nights more calmly delivered, and his comedy served sedately. If you get the chance to see American Trade you can make up your own mind; but steer well clear if you are easily offended.
Shaun Ajamu Hutchinson is The New Black Magazine's arts editor and a London-based freelance journalist.