In this atone age – the age of looking sceptically at old assumptions – the American musical is coming in for scrutiny. It is hard to imagine a show being more effectively rethought than Daniel Fish and Jordan Fein’s Broadway production of Oklahoma!.
All around the pale wood set designed by Laura Jellinek and Grace Laubacher, guns hang above the heads of the audience, who face each other on either side of the stage, as if ready for hoedown – or mow-down. Daniel Kluger’s reorchestration has stripped away lushness from the music, which is played by an onstage string band: country-twanging, roaring into rock, making a chorus sound less like a cowboy whoop than a war cry, yet capable of melting into intimacy with People Will Say We’re in Love. Being a no-disguise production, for much of the evening the house lights are up, but Scott Zielinski’s lighting plunges the action into total darkness for some disturbing encounters and turns the air an eerie turquoise at fantasy time. The hopeful young couple Curly and Laurey are last seen in wedding clothes, spattered with blood.
The killing that prompts that ending has been altered, made still more sinister, yet in general it is not simple change but re-emphasis that makes this Oklahoma! feel so new, together with finely recalibrated central performances. As Jud, the isolated hired hand, Patrick Vaill haunts the action, onstage throughout, casting an outsider stare on any hints at traditional dress-swishing, chap-slapping, pizzicato-pony-trotting jollity. Arthur Darvill’s Curly and Anoushka Lucas’s Laurey are less wholesome than sexy and taunting. The triumph is in showing that the buoyancy is not separate from darker aspects but dependent on them.
There is subtlety from Liza Sadovy – fresh from Cabaret success – and fine, dim-wit deadpan from James Davis. And lusciousness. Marisha Wallace’s glorious voice summons admirers like a bell, turning I Cain’t Say No from a comic sideshow into an anthem. Every now and then there is a shade of self-consciousness, of working too hard on pressing a point, but the detail is unflagging. The corn cobs alone are worth a thesis: being prepared for a picnic, they are greedily torn apart by one woman, carefully dissected by another. Oh, and waved around like phalluses.
Rebuilding is the theme of this year’s Brighton festival, co-curated by the Syrian architect Marwa al-Sabouni and Tristan Sharps, artistic director of the Brighton-based site-responsive company dreamthinkspeak. Al-Sabouni has created a colonnade venue on the front – the Riwaq, a pop-up space that hovers between inside and out. Meanwhile Sharps’s Unchain Me weaves in and out of city buildings, aiming to look at the need for reconstruction of inner lives and social structures. If only the result were as dynamic as the company’s dazzling reimagining of Hamlet 10 years ago.
Unchain Me takes off from Dostoevsky’s The Possessed, in which a revolutionary band with an unstable leader wreaks havoc in a town. Here the plot involves a struggle for the heart of Brighton. A wicked boss figure, the Governess, running the city for personal profit, is challenged by a group determined that decisions should be taken by “the people”; but is their own leader reliable?
The audience – treated as potential recruits, and as vulnerable to dangerous influences – are divided into groups, and set off on different routes with the same destination. Each follows instructions on iPads (with warnings about infiltrators) and guidance by “activists” who lead them around the Pavilion gardens, through an underground tunnel (where a locked door is labelled “foul linen store”), past locked-up museum display cases (described as “plundered artefacts”) and finally into the courthouse for a reckoning between Governess and opponents. Every now and then you stop for a lecture: from the activists about governmental failures, or to hear from an undercover cop about the activists’ unreliability.
The menace level is low. The speeches are stilted. The geography is insufficiently startling: at times it feels as if you are just doing 10,000 theatrical steps. Most damagingly, the audience, constantly herded and harangued, seem to have the power of interaction and curiosity sucked from them. The intention is presumably to raise questions about compliance and resistance: which path would you take? Yet the alternatives are posed so doggedly, and tendentiously, as to drain away curiosity.
Only the final scene flickers with dreamthinkspeak’s customary illuminations. Brought together in one room, the audience watch videos of actors/activists delivering accounts of radicalisation. Behind them, windows look on to the Brighton streets and unsuspecting civilians. Silently, actors appear in their frames, like monochrome spectres brought to full life. Everyone is being watched.
Beru Tessema’s perceptive first play has a troubled centre, bouncing dialogue, a bright, realistic design (jammed windows on a council estate) by Frankie Bradshaw, and a striking performance from newly graduated Michael Workeye, who gangles across the stage, hitching up his trousers, spilling out his rap, halfway between awkwardness and command. The plot of House of Ife – triggered by the death of a young man partly estranged from his family – unfolds unevenly, sometimes overexplicitly, but it has a particular new edge made apparent in Lynette Linton’s vivacious production. The family is divided between Addis Ababa and London; each is looking for a life that includes the experience of both countries. And, literally, a language. Has Amharic, so often heard in London shops and streets, ever been heard before on the English stage? It has now.
Star ratings (out of five)
Unchain Me ★★
House of Ife ★★★
Oklahoma! is at the Young Vic, London, until 25 June