Sunday, 21 July 2013

'The Amen Corner' at The National Theatre

This week I went to see two plays set in America in the 20th Century. The first was 'The Amen Corner' at the National Theatre thats focuses on an evangelical church in Harlem in the 1950s. 

The tale centres on Sister Margaret who leads the church with her firm moral views and dictates about what God wants from his followers. She rules her grown up son who plays piano in the church in much the same way. The world changes when her estranged husband turns up, ill from the excesses as his life as a jazz musician and who accidentally lets the cat of the bag that he didn't leave her, she left him and took their son with her. That little snippet of information is the start of Sister Margaret's world beginning to unravel and sees the elders of the church start plotting against her so that one elder can take her place and another will be able to take a lucrative job driving a liquor truck for a living. 

It's a tale of the little lies we tell to create our own lives, of power, no matter how small, and the problems it brings, of hypocrisy and honesty. Marianne Jean-Baptiste gives a powerful performance as the no-nonsense Sister Margaret, a powerhouse for the love of God and her church - her God and her church - who brooks no challenge to the way she rules her church. She has an answer for everything and Marianne plays her with utmost confidence - it's impossible for her to be wrong about anything since her God is on her side.

She is ably countered by Cecelia Noble as Sister Moore with her carefully contrived comic performance and impeccable timing moving slowly towards taking over the church. Cecelia gets the only laughs in the production and the audience can't help but show its appreciation. At the first chink in Sister Margaret's armour Sister Moore nags away at it, undermining and supporting at the same time who can cry out 'victory!' at the end.

The other outstanding performance was Sharon D Clarke as Margaret's sister, Odessa, who plays the only warm character in the play, the only truly human character. She cares about and looks after Margaret and her son and she's made them the focus of her world. She gives a very strong and touching performance. Don't mess with Odessa.

I'd also give a shout out to Naana Agyei-Ampadu who plays Ida Jackson with a sick baby she wants Sister Margaret to heal. It's a relatively small, but telling, part in which Naana plays a worried but composed woman in the first half and a ravaged and borderline mad with grief part in the second half after her baby has died. It was the first sign of humanity we see from Sister Margaret who has lost a baby many years ago and that started her on her path towards the church. Naana gave a harrowing performance and is someone to watch out for.

The men in the play get lesser and less developed roles. We have Brother Boxer who wants to take the job driving the liquor truck but who is silenced each time by Sister Margaret, one time by placing her hand over his face. This simple act says so much about Sister Margaret's arrogance and seeming power. Margaret's husband Luke and son David are rather stereotyped as a jazz musician and a wannabe jazz musician out in 'the world' and there are lots of shouted arguments (too much shouting really).

We get lots of gospel singing, both loud and proud and quiet as background noise since the set places the church hall above Sister Margaret's apartment. It was an interesting set, with steps - even just one - depicting different levels in the building leading to different rooms. Much of the action takes place in the cramped apartment, the family living on top of each other. That is where the play ends after Sister Margaret finally sees the truth that God wants her to love all his creations, all of them, and she quietly breaks down over the body of her husband who she realises she has always loved despite leaving him and now it is too late.

That final scene gives Marianne the opportunity for an affecting performance and she gives it to us in an emotionally raw scene. She crumbles as she confronts her parishioners with total honesty, her formidable strength draining away and she goes back to her apartment to fall into a sobbing heap as she cradles her husband's body and realises what she's lost. And the lights go out.

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