A sort of ecstatic tragedy set in a Harlem church, James Baldwin’s 1954 drama has gospel music right at its heart. But Rufus Norris – a showman director who could probably coax a decent vocal performance out of a spork – turns ‘The Amen Corner’ into something akin to one giant, intoxicating song in his dazzling National Theatre revival.
From the moment Marianne Jean-Baptiste’s Sister Margaret leads the congregation of her Harlem church through the explosive abandon of the show’s opening service, right on until a distinctly bitter end, the cavernous Olivier shimmers with song and sound. Even quieter moments are marked by the murmur of jazz on the radio or gentle tinkling from the slick house band.
Musically, it is utterly joyous, with a gifted cast augmented by singers from the London Community Gospel Choir. Emotionally, it is brutally cruel: though the voices rise to the heavens, God does not answer, and the story that unfolds is one of a congregation torn apart by petty human jealousies.
Indeed, religious song is deployed as cynical rhetoric by Cecilia Noble’s scene-stealingly awful Sister Moore, a bitter middle-aged spinster who schemes against Margaret behind her mask of bland piety. After every barbed insinuation, she breathlessly stomps and shouts and throws her arms up to the Lord, brooking no retort from her nemesis.
But Margaret is no saint, and behind Baldwin’s pricking at religious hypocrisy is a more heartbreaking tale of social deprivation. The congregation’s petty grievances are palpably exacerbated
by their poverty. And though Margaret – played with earthy charisma by the excellent Jean-Baptiste – is a decent woman, she is also living a lie, something that comes to light when her grievously ill jazz-musician husband comes strolling back into her life, the proverbial skeleton in the closet.
The plot is a little thin, truth be told, even a smidgen contrived at points. But a certain simplicity is probably to the aid of Norris’s production, which transcends cultural, ethnic and spiritual barriers between the play and its likely audience to tell a universal story of human frailty, elevated by song.
By Andrzej Lukowski