T’Shan Williams and Danielle Fiamanya as Celie and Nettie with Ako Mitchell as Mister raging in the background. Pictures: Pamela Raith
The Color Purple
On-line from Curve, Leicester
Curve, Leicester and Birmingham Hippodrome co-production
After almost a year with so little to celebrate in theatre, or indeed the Arts, along comes a production that stands out like a beacon of hope – simply theatre at its very best.
And despite being on telly, or laptops or iPads, this is still theatre. Director Tinuke Craig stuck to what she knows and gave us theatre on film, cleverly turning what had been a traditional proscenium production into theatre in the round, all played out on a circular revolve.
Sets were a few chairs, props merely a picnic blanket and a few glasses of lemonade - this was The Color Purple unplugged and it is an unfettered triumph by cast and crew.
I enjoyed the stage version back in 2019 but this is something else, on another level and the real tragedy was the sight of rows of empty seats in the gloom behind the socially distanced orchestra in the stalls. Such a stunning performance and no one allowed to see it live.
It also meant the large cast had the difficulty of no audience to play to, and, more importantly feed off and they did a phenomenal job at bringing characters and story to life in an empty theatre.
Church soloist Anelisa Lamola set the mark in the opening number with a voice that could be heard in space with T’Shan Williams and Danielle Fiamanya giving us the two young sisters Celie and Nettie, living under an abusive father. In that opening scene we see a glimpse of the life of African-American girls and women in rural Georgia in the early 20th century.
During the opening church service Celie gives birth to her second child – by her stepfather, who takes the baby away . . . as he did the last one. It is a remarkable performance from Williams who visibly grows from a girl in her early teens routinely raped by her stepfather to an independent middle aged woman, a transformation made by her acting skills alone.
Carly Mercedes Dyer as the famous singer and infamous manhunter Shug Avery
She is not alone in that. Ako Mitchell was not quite convincing as the cruel bully Mister on stage, distance tempering his raging temper, but here with close ups and snarls you could well believe evil rather than blood flowed through his veins. His finely honed cruelty took abuse into an art form but strangely when it came to his epiphany, when his abused wife Celie finally walks out on him, we actually find we have some sympathy.
Here was a man beaten and abused by his father, cruelly prevented from marrying the only woman he loved, taught to rule women by fist and fear and now left with nothing and overcome, finally, by regret and contrition – he’s a broken man . . . even his son Harpo is no longer afraid of him.
Harpo, Simon-Anthony Rhoden adds a light hearted element along with his girlfriend Squeak, the high-pitched Perola Congo and his wife Sofia, played by Karen Mavundukure, a big woman with a big voice and a big personality – but even she gets broken in the end. Three glorious performances.
Then there is Shug Avery, played by Carly Mercedes Dyer, famous as a singer and, should we say, famous, or infamous among wives and the God fearing, for being a woman with an accommodating nature . . . horizontally speaking.
She is the only woman Mister ever loved, and still loves, and the only woman he wanted that he never tried to beat into submission. She sees herself as a free spirit, but you suspect not a happy one, always searching for something she can never find.
Men come and go and her only solid relationship is with Celie and even that is just somewhere to moor her life between voyages.
Celie is the rock throughout, the one who rises above what life throws at her with quiet dignity as we follow her journey from the early 1900s to the late 1940s.
Choreography (Mark Smith) was never cramped and always interesting in the small space while the singing could not be faulted and the music from a widely spaced, excellent seven piece orchestra under Alex Parker sounded much bigger than their numbers would suggest – all worth a mention for sound designer Tom Marshall and sound engineer Dave Norton.
Cilie reaches breaking point and puts a curse on Mister - with Shug's latest beau Grady, Jo Servi, at the rear
Alex Lowde’s design with the circular revolve and use of banks and rows of lighting (Ben Cracknell) was inspired; it meant we were not watching a film of a stage performance, this was a theatre performance designed to be seen on-line, with the cast telling the story and they did it beautifully aided by skilled camera work from Crosscut Media which meant we saw nuances, expressions and emotions you would miss in even the poshest seats in the theatre.
This was theatre in the raw, full of feeling, passion and above all hope. Out of adversity has come an exceptional production which runs on-line to Sunday, 7 March. It's a trip to the theatre without leaving your sitting room.
Performances include some morning (10.30am) and afternoon (2.30pm and 5pm) along with the evening performances which run at either 7.30pm or 8.00pm to accommodate families and changed work patterns as well as schoolchildren with Alice Walker’s 1982 Pulitzer Prize winning novel a regular GCSE set book.
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