Saturday, 24 September 2016

Review Father Comes Back From The Wars

We at TLT Towers welcome Carolin Kopplin who brings continental spice to the TLT mix! Munich-born Carolin trained as a lawyer and dramaturge before living and working in the USA. She is now a writer and translator based in London and, of course, the newest recruit to the TLT team. 

Father Comes Back From The Wars (Parts 1,2 &3)
by Suzan-Lori Parks

Of Human Bondage

A slave on a West Texas plantation called Hero and his personal odyssey through the American Civil War and its aftermath is the focus of Father Comes Back From The Wars. Pulitzer Prize winner Suzan-Lori Parks combines elements of Greek drama with Homer's Odyssey and a philosophical debate on the concept of freedom in a powerful trilogy of plays. 

In the first part, "A Measure Of A Man", set in 1862. Hero (Steve Toussaint) is faced with a dilemma. His master has promised to free him if Hero joins the Confederate army. But should he fight against the army that wants to abolish slavery in the South? Or should he maim himself to evade the military? And, even more importantly, will his master keep his promise? 

Hero's wife, Penny, (Nadine Marshall) urges him to stay home. His father (Leo Wringer) and many of his fellow slaves, who also make him the subject of a wager, want him to go, not just because they will face severe punishment by the "boss-master" if Hero refuses..

The second part, "A Battle In The Wilderness", takes us on to the battlefield. The Colonel (John Stahl), Hero's master, has captured a Union soldier Smith (Tom Bateman) and keeps him locked up in a tiny wooden cage.

To pass the time, the Colonel plays his banjo and forces his prisoner to sing rebel songs. But Smith changes the lyrics, the Colonel loses interest and instead challenges him on his beliefs about freedom and slavery.

Parks also uses Hero and Smith to explore the materialist culture, ruled by the rich, where the slaves will never be free: "This mark of the market will always be on us." Smith urges Hero to desert and join the Union Army to fight for his freedom. To whom should Hero give his loyalty?

The final section, "The Union Of My Confederate Parts" sees Hero returning from the war and the parallels to The Odyssey become particularly striking. Hero has changed his name to Ulysses, after Commander-in-Chief Ulysses S Grant, and his wife Penny (Penelope from the Greek epic) has been fending off wooers in his absence. 

The slaves have been sold off or died with only Penny or Homer (Jimmy Akingbola) remaining. Hero's talking cross-eyed dog Odd-See (Dex Lee) miraculously returns to fulfil the function of Messenger, reporting on Hero's journey and lightening the more sombre mood of this act.

Originally staged at the Public Theater in New York, director Jo Bonney's production now has an excellent British cast. Toussaint's Hero is an imposing presence, the archetype of a hero, yet seriously flawed. Marshall portrays Penny with strength and vulnerability. Akingbola impresses as the rebellious Homer, whose foot was cut off after he tried to run away. Bateman gives a forceful performance as Smith.  

Although over three hours' long, this skilfully directed, intriguing work never has a dull moment. Neil Patel's atmospheric set and Steven Bargonetti's bluesy music transport us straight to the American south.    

Writer Parks sets the bar high in the first three of nine planned plays, employing ancient forms to tell a still very relevant story. It's a green light for a trilogy uncovering how the precarious position for African-Americans during the long-past Civil War still resonates today.

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