“the piece resounds with leitmotifs and slogans that, though memorable, threaten to drown out the subtler refrains that form the crux of the subject matter”
The theatre company ‘Nouveau Riche’, which won The Stage Edinburgh Award for its production of “Queens of Sheba”, present quite vital theatre that is stripped back visually but rich in words that quite often dazzle with their pin-sharp focus. Now at the VAULT Festival for a limited run, “Queens of Sheba” tells stories of racism and misogyny from the perspective of four passionate Black Women. The capital letters are intentional – lifted from the programme notes – but are they really necessary? The message is surely powerful enough in its own right, without the need for the upper-case emphasis.
Based on the poetry of Jessica L Hagan and adapted for the stage by Ryan Calais Cameron, the piece resounds with leitmotifs and slogans that, though memorable, threaten to drown out the subtler refrains that form the crux of the subject matter. You need to read beyond the headline grabbing soundbites to realise that there is a more complicated story. Initially it feels like a bit of a tirade replete with sweeping stock phrases, but these are, in fact, quite moving, individual stories.
On a bare stage the four performers; Rachel Clarke, Jacoba Williams, Koko Kwaku and Veronica Beatrice Lewis, speak alone, speak in chorus, sing, rap and harmonise with an “all for one and one for all” attitude. Their tales are told with witty self-deprecation. Stories from the office workplace, a disastrous first date and from the queue outside a London nightclub – the latter based on a real incident when they were refused entry to the club for being “too black”. It brings home the truth that issues of racism are not black and white, but have many shades.
For the majority of the audience, though, it does feel like the ‘Queens of Sheba’ are preaching to the choir. Nevertheless, there is still plenty of entertainment value. The close-knit choreography defines the unison of these four girls, complemented by the tight harmonies when they burst into a cappella song; and peppered throughout are some delightful comedy moments that give a refreshing nod and a wink to the polemic. There is a particularly pertinent impersonation of a white man’s stumbling malapropisms on his first date with an “exotic” girlfriend.
In a limited time, much ground is covered, but inevitably much is left out too. Both its strength and its weakness. After an hour a kind of relentlessness sets in, like a slam poet who outstays his welcome. But at the same time, we do still want, and need, to hear more from these extraordinary women. This is an emotionally charged piece of theatre that is undeniably urgent.
“without doubt visually and technically strong; occasionally, however, it feels as though something important is missing”
As innovative as he was, it is doubtful that H. G. Wells foresaw his most famous work – often referred to as “the first sci-fi novel” – being even remotely related to debates about the 2016 US elections, lizard people, and whether or not you’re allowed to vape at the dinner table. But, in their reimagining of Wells’ classic novel, Rhum and Clay have done just that. A story about Martians has become a story about the truth, and which version of it we choose to believe.
The War of the Worlds tells three stories simultaneously. The first is derived from Wells’ novel, detailing the Martians’ invasion of Earth. The second is the story behind Orson Welles’ 1938 radio adaptation of the novel, which was so realistic that it allegedly caused mass panic amongst the American public. Finally, in the present day, British blogger Meena travels to Grover’s Mill, New Jersey, to explore the effect of this hysteria on a local family – but goes far deeper than she intended. It won’t please those looking for a faithful adaptation of the novel, but the three stories fit together coherently and bring out aspects of each other well. Despite the sometimes tenuous connection between Meena’s narrative and the source material, it is an unexpectedly insightful way of exploring contemporary concerns about fake news and political paranoia.
The weaker moments are often strengthened by an energetic and committed cast. Mona Goodwin makes Meena a likeable character, who is naïve and earnest despite the self-serving nature of her project. Julian Spooner brings a sense of urgency, particularly through his portrayal of news reporter Carl Phillips; Matthew Wells’ gravitas grounds the action during its more melodramatic moments. Of the four, Amalia Vitale is the most captivating, particularly in the role of Lawson. She has an amazing stage presence: even when she is only a background character, it is hard not to watch her. Set designer Bethany Wells must also be credited for her simple yet effective stage. The translucent walls that surround the space help create a sense of artificiality; the way they obscure the characters’ movements adds a sinister edge.
That being said, there are still some elements of the show that are a little difficult to be enthusiastic about. It has a lot to say about relevant and exciting topics, yet the ending does not tie these things together as effectively as it should. Meena’s story in particular feels a little rushed and unfinished. It is without doubt visually and technically strong; occasionally, however, it feels as though something important is missing.
Rhum and Clay have successfully given an oft-told story a new sense of relevance. Although the final product does not fully do justice to their vision, it is still entertaining, insightful, and above all an effective immersion into a sinister and intriguing world – one that is far closer than we think.