‘and breathe…’ review

Theatre, Experimental
Recommended
4 out of 5 stars
and breathe…, Almeida, 2021
Photo by Almeida David Jonsson (Junior)

Time Out says

4 out of 5 stars

David Jonsson stars in this gorgeously-realised stage version of Yomi Ṣode's poems about Black male grief

It does ‘and breathe…’ absolutely no discredit to say that we kind of owe its existence to Covid. With its short-running time, (presumably) modest budget and tiny cast, this one-hour stage version of writer Yomi Ṣode’s forthcoming poetry collection ‘Manorism’, is perfect for the social-distancing era. Furthermore, it non-coincidentally stars David Jonsson, who was was due to play the lead in “Daddy”, the play that was all set to go at the Almeida last March (and will now appear next year). 

So yes, we probably owe Miranda Cromwell’s production to the epidemic. But that’s okay because it’s properly exquisite stuff. The show starts some time before Jonsson arrives on stage, with gifted multi-instrumentalist Femi Temowo taking his place at his station, his first note ushering in the first sight of Ravi Deepres’s fluid, graceful videos. When Jonsson finally shuffles on, his shadow isn’t his real shadow, but a seamless video projection. The vids aren’t flashy or ostentatious, but they accent the text, creates a sense of gently heightened reality when paired with Temowo’s arsenal of sounds, which run the gamut from strung-out, stressed synths to an almighty roar of Kendrick Lamar.

The story, which is composed from multiple prose poems but is essentially a single narrative, follows Jonsson’s narrator, Junior, a Black Londoner of Nigerian descent. I don’t think his age is ever clearly stated, but he is clearly an adult. And yet ‘and breathe…’ is a coming-of-age story. ‘Everything I know about masculinity I learned from my mother’, he says, and the show is marked by his uncertainty about his place in the world, confused about his role as a Black man, as a friend, as a brother, as an adult.

Jonsson plays him with a compelling mix of low-key grit and plaintive vulnerability. At one point Junior catches himself strutting about the stage and giving it all that – then pulls himself up sort and gives us a wickedly quizzical look. He knows such bravado just isn’t him.

The story follows the last days and passing of Junior’s, grandmother ‘Big Mummy’. There is plenty of other stuff going on besides – in fact perhaps the most challenging thing about it is remembering who every named character is and how they relate to Junior – but it’s Junior’s attempt to understand and move past Big Mummy’s death that serves as the gateway to he show’s achingly graceful conclusion. It’s a play about grief, and moving beyond it: but it’s just about one man’s performance though: ‘and breathe…’ is a beautiful balance of words, sound and feeling, delicate and indestructible as a shaft of light.

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