Theatre review: The House That Will Not Stand at the Tricycle Theatre
PUBLISHED: 06:02 23 October 2014
Photo by Mark Douet
In Marcus Gardley’s 1830s New Orleans-set play, the ghost of a murdered European colonist threatens to bring down his property and his bereaved mixed race mistress and daughters. But there are few cracks evident in the buoyant UK premiere of this lyrical, witty and wildly unpredictable play.
Fusing magic, music and even voodoo, Gardley hones in on the issue of skin colour and status and brings that into the present with a fierce clarity. Under French and Spanish rule in the Louisiana territories, it became common practice for male European colonists to take enslaved African women as mistresses or common-law wives. A unique system of placage emerged in which mixed race mistresses and their children could negotiate for property, money and education. Here, mixed race matriarch Beartrice (Martina Laird) was colonist Albans’ (Paul Shelley) placee.
While their three daughters are born free, their shades of skin colour promise different social destinies: the oldest Agnes “is the colour of butter”, the middle Maude Lynn “is white as milk” and the youngest Odette is “brown as oatmeal”.
With Albans’ corpse freshly laid out in their living room (an impressive dummy oppresses throughout), the daughters fight for their right to attend the annual New Orleans ball where they hope to bewitch a man who will liberate them from their mother’s house rule. But just as in Lorca’s House of Bernarda Alba (Gardley’s main inspiration), freedom is hard won.
The mix of righteous fury and despair, the literary allusions and race issues could all make for a tough night out but this play is bursting with playfulness and shrewd, humane insights.
It’s quite something to see a cast of such strong female characters battle it out on stage, playing up the social mores, while undercutting the hypocrisies with catty exchanges that would put Scarlett O’Hara to shame.
Laird is a revelation and Tanya Moodie brings a heartbreaking dignity to the role of maid Makeda. Yes, the blend of the supernatural with camp comedy sometimes jars but director Indhu Rubasingham pulls the contrasting elements together with great energy and ultimately seals the right balance.
Rating: 4/5 stars
Until November 22.
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