In the latest look at a show that should have opened this week but could not because of the coronavirus lockdown, Lyn Gardner speaks to Roy Williams about his play Sucker Punch, which was due to open at London’s Theatre Royal Stratford East. She also looks at a significant show that opened this week in a previous year
Roy Williams’ sharp jab of a play was due to run at Theatre Royal Stratford East between June 19 and July 25, with a press night on June 25. Directed by Roy Alexander Weise, it was the first UK revival since Sucker Punch was first seen at London’s Royal Court in 2010 although the play has had several revivals in the US.
Set in 1980s Britain, against a background of riots, stop and search laws and simmering racial tensions, the play follows the fortunes of two young black boxers, Leon and Troy, who grow up as close friends in the East End of London but find themselves in opposite corners.
“It’s definitely topical,” says Williams, “so it’s frustrating that it’s not going ahead. It’s set 30 years ago, but it asks: why has so little changed? It’s the same question that is being asked now with the Black Lives Matter protests. So yes, it’s a play that may have been first seen 10 years ago but it’s of the moment.”
Who was involved?
Jemima Robinson was the designer, Zoe Spurr the lighting designer, Alexandra Faye Braithwaite the sound designer, Lanre Malaolu the choreographer and movement director, with fight director Kate Waters.
“I was delighted when artistic director Nadia Fall said she wanted to do the play, and even more delighted when she suggested that Royal Alexander Weise direct it,” Williams says.
“It’s set long before he was born, so I think reading it was an education for him. He just got it straight away and understood that what went on in Thatcher’s Britain is intimately connected to what happens to black people now. Roy is very well read, very smart. I wasn’t surprised when he got the Royal Exchange job. I look around at what people like Roy and Nadia and Lynette Linton at the Bush are doing, and I believe these guys really will change British theatre. I have such confidence they can do it. They have the impetus to drive things forward.”
How far did the production get?
“I had sat in on the auditions and I’d seen movement director Lanre Malaolu put the actors through their paces. It was brutal to watch – like a bootcamp. We had started to make offers to actors so there was real excitement. I can’t help thinking George Floyd and Black Lives Matter would have impacted on the production. There is no way it wouldn’t have done.”
Will it have future life?
“These are extraordinary times so there are no guarantees or promises that it will happen, but it feels more like a postponement than a cancellation. But it would be heartbreaking if it doesn’t come back.”
What has Williams been doing during the shutdown?
“I was ill at the start. I have never been so ill in my life. It was awful. I didn’t have a test but I’m 90% certain it was coronavirus. After that I struggled to write. You would think that lockdown would suit a writer, but I need to be stimulated to be inspired. Writing for me is about sitting at home, but it is also about going to the pub to meet a friend and seeing and hearing people talk. It all feeds in.
So, I told myself I just had to be patient and not beat myself up about it. It changed. The Dominic Cummings story and the death of George Floyd have both provided inspiration. I think change is afoot. I hope so. In theatre too. We have heard theatres saying that Black Lives Matter. Now we need to see real action.”
For more information: stratfordeast.com
A production that did happen this week in the past was Too Clever by Half, by Alexander Ostrovsky. It was a version by Rodney Ackland that opened at London’s Old Vic on June 28, 1988 and ran until August 13 that year.
Alex Jennings gave a star turn as Gloumov, a ruthless young Muscovite on the make in 19th-century Russia who is determined to climb the greasy pole of success in the civil service by all means necessary. He panders to the rich and powerful who can help him on his way, all the time recording his real feeling about them in his secret diary.
It was directed by Richard Jones and designed by Richard Hudson. Hudson’s set was remarkable, setting ablaze a debate about designer’s theatre that still rumbles on to this very day. Taking its influence from Russian Constructivism, Hudson’s design featured doors that opened into thin air, walls that the actors clung to like spiders and floors that tilted and leaned. Social climbing became not just an idea but was physically manifested in the performance.
The cast also reflected one of those moments when the mainstream embraced the fringe, with an array of alternative talent on display including Complicté’s Celia Gore Booth, the Sadista Sisters’ Linda Marlowe and Phelim McDermott who went on to found Improbable.
It was a moment when British theatre suddenly looked as if it might become more European. Of course, it didn’t, except at the edges, but the promise was there almost two decades before directors such as Ivo van Hove brought a different sensibility to mainstream British stages.
But the undoubted star of the evening was Jennings who had played Lucio in Measure for Measure in Stratford the previous season. It was in this production that he announced himself as a fully-fledged star in a glorious comic performance that offered a seductive mix of innocence and guile that was quite literally hair-raising. As I wrote at the time, it quite put you in mind of a murderous Andy Pandy on the rampage.