Royal Court Jerwood Theatre Upstairs (****)
For some bizarre reason, the design credits for Torn include designer, assistant designer, set construction and three scenic artists for a production which appears to be simply a stack of chairs in a circle with a tea/coffee table at the side.
It’s my only caveat in a mesmerising 90 minutes directed by Richard Twyman, a director attuned to every nuance of Nathaniel Martello-White’s devilish, jigsaw puzzle of a play, as indeed he was with the Royal Court’s equally explosive children- under-siege in Palestine, Dahlia Taha’s Fireworks (2015).
A child is also at the centre of Martello-White’s Torn – Angel (Adelle Leonce, powerfully vulnerable), aptly named but now as an adult, an avenging angel come to drag the truth out her family no matter what.
And what that truth might be Martello-White withholds although one can speculate as to child abuse visited on a step daughter by a step-father. But that is not really what’s at issue here. Whilst Downstairs, Suzan-Lori Parks’ Father Comes Home from the War examines the roots of American racism from the time of the American Civil War, Martello-White is confronting something even more complex in Torn.
A black British family torn apart by race, yes, but also profoundly by hidden family histories impelled by the subtle impact of racial difference and dominance, of mixed race marriage and shades of skin.
Nothing is entirely clear from Martello-White’s idiosyncratic text. But the zap, zap, zap of its delivery by the cast and Twyman’s ability to wring the sense out of it so that a single word heard explodes into a thousand meanings, is breath-taking. Like Nick Payne’s Constellation in the same theatre, you marvel at the speed and dexterity even whilst uncomfortable implications begin to unfold in your brain.
Was Angel really abused by her white step-father? Did her mother (the splendid Indra Ové) really `farm’ her out from shame because she wanted a better life with a white second husband? Did her aunts really fail to back her up? And was her Couzin (a thoughtful Osy Ikhile) really gay or, like Angel, succumbing to family perceptions and pressures?
Whatever the answers, it’s technical brilliance of the highest order.
Torn runs at the Royal Court Jerwood Theatre Upstairs to Oct 15, 2016
A new play by Nathaniel Martello-White
2nd Twin: Franc Ashman
Aunty L: Lorna Brown
Aunty J: Kirsty Bushell
Brian: Roger Griffiths
Steve: James Hillier
Couzin: Osy Ikhile
Angel: Adelle Leonce
1st Twin: Indra Ové
Botha: Jamael Westman
Director: Richard Twyman
Lighting Designer: Charles Balfour
Sound Designer: Gareth Fry
Movement Director: Patricia Okenwa
Assistant Director: Lynette Linton
Assistant Designer: Sadeysa Greenaway-Bailey
Casting: Amy Ball
Dialect Coach: William Conacher
Torn is part of the Royal Court’s Jerwood New Playwrights Programme, supported by the Jerwood Charitable Foundation
World premiere of Torn at the Royal Court Jerwood Theatre Upstairs, Sloane Square, Sept 7, 2016
Review first published in Reviewsgate, Sept 2016