Reviewed – 3rd October 2019
“fretfully provocative and painfully relevant, and it gives us a whole lot to think about”
Though it might be said of many a time in history, the debate on power distribution seems particularly prevalent at this political moment, and the argument between generations seems louder than ever, with terms such as ‘generation snowflake’ being bandied about. Eleanor Burgess’ The Niceties, as directed by Matthew Illife, is a timely discussion between young and old, majority and minority, and radical and moderate.
Zoe (Moronkę Akinola), a young black student, and her professor Janine (Janie Dee), a white woman of obvious privilege, are poring over a first draft of Zoe’s thesis. What begins as an interesting discussion between two enthusiasts morphs into a gritty debate on the innately imperialist structure of academia and history’s stress on the white experience. The argument becomes personal very quickly, as is made clear to us by a soundtrack (Kate Marlais) of a low thrum and a heartbeat, confirming that things have turned nasty. This is pretty much the only sound used throughout, appearing again halfway through the second act, and it seems a bit unnecessary and patronising.
That being said, tension rises so early in the play that it’s perhaps necessary to continuously raise the bar. Whilst Zoe clearly has cause to be frustrated with the system, Akinola plays her more like a petulant child for the first half. Stomping around her professor’s office, avoiding eye contact, it feels more like a fight between a mother and her teenage daughter than between an esteemed academic and a promising student. The argument’s peak is lost in her almost constant state of fury where it might have had more punch if she had deferred her outrage slightly.
Akinola is quite a force on stage, however, and whilst her character choices don’t necessarily serve the play, her commitment to the role is tremendous.
Dee’s American accent is a little shaky and it gets in the way of her delivery for the first twenty minutes or so, but regardless, it feels as though she might have ad-libbed half the play, so natural are her mannerisms and emotional turns.
With an audience on three sides and an office-desk setting (Rachel Stone), the staging is always going to be tricky. The solution, it seems, is to keep both performers moving at all times, circling each other like cage fighters, in order to avoid having someone’s back to the audience throughout. It feels unlikely in this particular scenario, but maybe that’s how professors’ office hours are in the US?
No matter how it’s staged, the text itself will always, I think, make for uncomfortable viewing, pitting idealism against pragmatism; negotiating for improvements versus demanding immediate change. It’s an interesting discussion, but I’m not convinced these were the characters to have it: Though she isn’t without nuance, Zoe seems a slightly unfair and unkind representation of a completely sound point of view where Janine, though certainly flawed, comes off as charming and reasonable. It’s not a fair fight.
There’s no doubt The Niceties brings certain necessary and urgent conversations to the table, and whilst it doesn’t quite strike an even tone, it is fretfully provocative and painfully relevant, and it gives us a whole lot to think about.
Reviewed by Miriam Sallon
Photography by Ali Wright
Finborough Theatre until 26th October
Last ten shows reviewed at this venue: