Another leap in the right direction
Wilson’s Fences tells the story of the Maxons, an African-American family living in Pittsburgh during the 1950s, and turns the audience to tears and to belly-aching laughter in equal measure.
The team behind Fences truly did take on an impressive and monumental task. It has been performed in the past by some of the most terrifyingly talented actors we have: Viola Davis, Denzel Washington, Lenny Henry, James Earl Jones. Moreover, this is only Cambridge's second play with an all-black cast, following on from last year’s Macbeth, which was also directed by Saskia Ross. This inevitably places pressure on the production as it carves necessary space for black people in a theatre scene that is suffocatingly white. The question was whether the cast could pull it off with this weight on their shoulders.
The play revolves around Troy Maxon, a character thoroughly bruised by his abusive upbringing, his time in prison and his sporting dreams crushed in a white-dominated environment. He is stuck in a rut, buried under his bottled anger caused by the weight of history and masculinity as well as the expectations carried by family, fatherhood and love. His family tread on eggshells around his oversized and entangled character, ensuing in tensions that ebb and flow and keep the audience on their toes.
The standout actor in this production was indeed Peter Adefioye, playing Troy. Swigging from his hip flask, he was all crow’s feet, tough leather, frayed laces and rough hands, imbued with the kind of sweetness that can only grow from cracks in the pavement. Adefioye captures the complexity of this character perfectly, crushed between his desire to live in the moment and his yearning for a better life, landing somewhere between and measuring out his life by every pay check. His towering character crumbles scene after scene, in the same way that your parents slowly soften from pillars of wisdom into mere mortals with fissures and false smiles as you grow up.
However, his painfully unfulfilled potential is juxtaposed by his two sons, both brimming with hope. Though sometimes rather wooden, the acting of Amin Abdelhamid and Christopher Deane did mostly capture those flickers of vivacity.
Much of the same can be said for Maya Bailey-Braendgaard; in particular moments of high tension, the audience was fully captivated and there was no distinction between the actor and her character.
However, it often felt as though she, and many actors in the play, were too self-conscious, too aware of the audience and the pressure of this momentous play, thinking about the exact wording of their lines rather than the emotions of the scene. These nerves also rendered climaxes rather unrealistic, not quite hooking the audience. That said, this could just be the effect of opening night.
A particularly impressive feat by director Saskia Ross was her creation of both dark and light in the play. One minute the audience is in fits of laughter over the endearing character of Gabe (Roslynn Ampomah), the next back to nursing a winded stomach, and the next on the edge of our seats, bewitched by the bittersweet tenderness of Cory and Raynell’s shared song.
Another stellar facet of the play was the use of the emblematic and eponymous fence as a physical 4th wall, which both entrapped the tension and made it seem as though the audience were voyeurs peeking at this slice of the real world.
All in all, this play is well worth a watch. It is playing such an important role in the current movement towards making Cambridge theatre not just tolerant of black actors, but of black stories, which is being waged by the inspirational Ross. However, its importance is not just rooted in its politics; it’s a play full of potential that will only be realised with more confidence and support.
Fences is on at 7pm at the Corpus Playroom, until Saturday 11th November.