This hip off-Broadway smash transfers to the Royal Court
Suzan-Lori Parks’s ‘Father Comes Home from the Wars (Parts 1, 2 & 3)’ is a welcome return to the sort of sprawling black American epic we don’t see so much in the Royal Court’s Downstairs theatre now that current boss Vicky Featherstone has gone all avant-garde on our asses.
Loosely speaking it’s a retelling of Homer’s ‘The Odyssey’ set during the American Civil War, with Odysseus replaced by Hero (Steve Toussaint), a loyal-to-a-definite-fault Texas slave who leaves his wife Penny at home to help his master fight Yankees in exchange for his freedom.
Jo Bonney’s recast off-Broadway transfer production is indeed in three parts, with the bookending sections following Hero and an anachronistically dressed (sneakers, baseball caps) group of slaves at ‘home’ on their master’s farm in far west Texas, spouting poetic dialogue. It is a rich, complicated, unsentimental play with an awful lot to say about how the system of slavery has done permanent damage to the African-American collective identity; and it asks to what extent freedom is even possible for black people in America. It’s clearly horribly topical, though not furiously political: Parks’s poetic language, songs, light magical realism (there’s a talking dog!) and general audacity account for much of the play’s appeal.
The standout section is part two, set during the war, where we meet Hero’s master the Colonel (a magnificent turn from John Stahl) as he taunts captured Yankee captain Smith (Tom Bateman), whom he intends to ransom, and who has tried to persuade Hero to ditch his master. Of the three sections, this has the most gripping, self-contained plot, a fascinating psychological power-play, with a cracking twist at the end. Stahl is magnetic as the cackling, unstable Colonel, a sort of mad Zeus who sings ribald songs, glugs from a hip flask, plays sadistic games and breaks into tears when he contemplates losing Hero.
Despite its clear resonances with the world of 2016, there is something a little cerebral and un-gritty – perhaps even twee – about ‘Father Comes Home…’, and there’s a certain lack of emotional heft. But it’s fantastically imaginative and splendidly acted by an all-Brit cast (great work from dialect coach Hazel Holder). And if there’s a slight chill to the writing, it’s warmed by Parks’s songs and the heroic efforts of Steven Bargonetti, the show’s music director, on stage throughout with a kinetic guitar soundtrack.