Lolita Chakrabarti’s play, Hymn, is a heartfelt and sensitive exploration of family, male friendship and the power of music.
The arts has been one of the hardest hit industries in this global pandemic. Theatres have been closed to the public for a large part of last year and well into this one. Coronavirus has changed our lives in many ways, including how we experience theatre and other live events. We are now in a new era of livestreamed plays, where you can watch live theatre from the comfort of your own home. This has invariably changed the way we experience theatre and the way in which theatre makers are able to create work.
Hymn, written by Lolita Chakrabarti and directed by Blanche McIntyre, is a tender and heartfelt exploration of family, friendship and the power of music. Two strangers meet at a funeral. One of them is unaware that both are sons of the deceased. What subsequently unravels is a story charting the relationship between two men as they form a bond, integrating themselves into each other’s lives and families. We are taken to great highs and very low lows as they each try to navigate their way in the world, dealing with their positions in their individual and combined families, and how they fit into society.
Adrian Lester and Danny Sapani shine as Gil and Benny respectively, which is unsurprising given that their roles were written with the actors in mind. Gil’s descent into alcoholism is treated with measured feeling and a visible internal pain by Lester, while Sapani beautifully captures the uneasiness and self-consciousness of a man who is thrust into a family he didn’t know he had. The two actors have a natural chemistry that grows with the characters as they dance through the carefully choreographed play, which follows social distancing guidelines. This undoubtedly posed a challenge to the creative team, given that this is a play that lends itself to the intimacy of touch. However, the strength of both performances projects this intimacy and connection so that the intent and intensity remain believable.
Lolita Chakrabarti has written with incredible sensitivity and has succeeded in capturing the black, male experience in Britain. Benny and Gil are incredibly recognisable as children of Caribbean parents of their generation. Watching them dance and sing to Motown, soul and hip-hop music brings memories of my father dancing and singing to the same songs. The music is integral to the play and more so to Gil and Benny’s relationship as it provides a point of access to the development of their brotherly friendship and establishes commonality.
Perhaps the main hurdle that Blanche McIntyre was faced with was the task of making a play designed for a live auditorium audience work for livestreaming. In many ways, this adaptation is very successful and, in some ways, advantageous. The cameras are able to conceal scene changes and create a kind of slight-of-hand illusion for costume changes that would not have been possible in normal circumstances. Yet, there is a sense of detachment during monologues and speeches, in which the actors speak to an empty auditorium. The great power of theatre is its ability to create a real, in-person dialogue between the actors and the audience and amongst the audience itself. It creates a sense of community and makes you, as an audience member, part of the work. This is of course lost when viewing from home, and I wonder if delivering lines directly to the camera in these instances and acknowledging the audiences even if they cannot be seen, would go some way towards addressing the disconnect between viewer and actor.
The lasting sentiment is that Hymn is a play that, through dynamic and nuanced performances, clever direction and a depth of voice, deals with themes of family pressure, fitting in and living up to expectations, and asks whether you can ever truly know someone.
Hymn is being streamed via the Almeida Theatre website until Sunday 21 February (last performance will be at 5pm). For more information or to book tickets, click here.
Feature image: Hymn at the Almeida. Adrian Lester and Danny Sapani. Photo credit: Marc Brenner.