August Wilson’s Pittsburgh Cycle was an extraordinary feat – ten plays, spanning the ten decades of the 20th century, written to explore the African-American experience. Some are more regularly revived than others – Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom was at the National Theatre three years ago, and Fences was in the West End three years before that.
The penultimate play in the cycle, King Hedley II, is one of the lesser-spotted works. Written in 1999 and set during the 1980s, it follows the titular character as he tries to find a way to make a living after seven years in prison. Nadia Fall’s revival at Stratford East, which runs until June 15, is the first time the play has been seen in London since 2002.
Fall’s production stars Aaron Pierre as the eponymous ex-con, and certified national treasure Lenny Henry as travelling hustler Elmore. Henry’s last stage appearance was two years ago, in The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui at the Donmar Warehouse.
But does Fall finish her first season as artistic director with a flourish? Does Wilson’s play pack a punch two decades on from its premiere? Does Henry have the critics heaping praise upon him?
Fergus Morgan rounds up the reviews.
Wilson’s Pittsburgh Cycle won him two Pulitzer prizes and one Tony award. None were for King Hedley II, but the play was nominated for both. Twenty years on from its debut, do the critics consider it award-worthy?
Not quite. Most reviewers are quick to point out the play’s length, the darkness of its themes, and the opaqueness of its plot. It’s “overheated” and “overlong”, according to Michael Billington (Guardian, ★★★), who writes that “there are powerful scenes, but too many of the plot strands are unresolved”.
“It’s punishingly long and unremittingly dark,” agrees Sarah Crompton (WhatsOnStage, ★★★). “It’s full of long, poetic passages about God, death and hell, and its plot is revealed in great gobbets of dialogue rather than through action.”
Some critics, though, can appreciate what Wilson was trying to do. Andrzej Lukowski (Time Out, ★★★★) admires the play’s “sometimes gentle, sometimes savage excavation of the lives of a small group of African-American friends and family”, while Tim Bano (The Stage, ★★★★) thinks that “the plot is less important than what the play is saying: about the things life promises, or doesn’t; about cycles of violence; about revenge and forgiveness.”
“It is a slog,” he continues. “But it’s worth it to see that nothing has changed – from the 1980s when the play is set, to the 1990s when it was written, to now. That’s testament to the acute, prophetic mind of Wilson, but also just really sad.”
“Its epic quality is part of its point,” suggests Sarah Hemming (Financial Times, ★★★★). “Wilson brings the depth and scope to the lives of ordinary black Americans that a classic playwright might bring to a tale of monarchs and warfare. The result is a sweeping, searing drama that could do with some serious pruning.”
“It’s not Wilson’s best,” she continues. “It’s overlong and too disposed to weighty monologues, while the shifts of register don’t always work. But it pulses with humanity and with rage at the inequities of a country that deals some citizens a very poor hand. And it still feels all too topical.”
“What keeps this overly long production (three hours and 30 minutes) afloat is Wilson’s tantalising mix of religion, violence, history, love and hate, all wrapped up into one never-ending chat,” echoes Ann Treneman (Times, ★★★★).
This production marks the end of Fall’s first season in charge at Theatre Royal Stratford East – a largely successful programme, notable particularly for Ned Bennett’s West End-bound revival of Equus – and her direction is widely lauded.
It’s “taut and riveting”, according to Bano, has “wonderful rhythm”, according to Treneman, and is “vigorous yet sensitive”, according to Henry Hitchings (Evening Standard, ★★★★), while Billington calls the production “beautifully lit and designed”.
“Peter McKintosh’s bleak, recessed set, perfectly captures the meanness of the wooden slatted houses in which the characters live,” describes Crompton. “Fall’s direction is tightly-wrought and carefully-detailed; from the moment the play begins you know something terrible is going to happen and it’s to her credit that until the very end, when the whole thing tips over into a kind of Grand Guignol madness, she keeps it so fierce and intense.”
“Fall’s atmospheric production has an intensity and immensity that really underscores the vastness of Wilson’s undertaking,” adds Lukowski. “Striking lighting from Howard Harrison makes Peter McKintosh’s naturalist set seem to shift and warp even though we never leave the yard; ominous electronic sound design from Christopher Shutt stokes the tension.”
Bano, meanwhile, praises the play’s “unbridled intensity” and writes that “sometimes, it is necessary to dial it up to 11”.
Lenny Henry’s done some August Wilson before – he was in Fences in the West End in 2013. Aaron Pierre has not – he only made is professional stage debut last year in Othello at Shakespeare’s Globe.
The critics are kind to both, particularly Pierre’s King. He’s “the production’s defining presence”, writes Hitchings, while Hemming labels him “excellent, volatile, vulnerable” and Treneman calls him “terrific” and “mesmerising”.
Crompton praises how his performance – “all bulging muscles and boiling frustration” – “captures King’s rage and sense of futility”, while Billington calls the actor “an exciting talent who brings an edge of danger”.
“Pierre’s King Hedley is a twisted knot of rage,” writes Bano. “There’s barely a moment in his ferocious performance when his muscles aren’t straining, his veins popping.”
Henry, meanwhile, is also excellent as ageing conman Elmore. He has “a stately cool”, according to Billington, while Crompton finds him “charming and lethal” and Hitchings admires “a flirtatious elegance and an air of half-suppressed menace”.
“Henry is terrific as dapper provocateur Elmore, whose outward geniality in no way conceals his dangerousness,” writes Lukowski, while Bano calls him “a model of charisma” and Hemming praises an “intensely charismatic” performance that’s “smooth as butter, sharp as a knife”.
“Henry is dashing and eloquent as Elmore but, when the nasty side comes, it’s terrifying,” concludes Treneman.
It’s a challenging evening, no doubt about it. The penultimate play in Wilson’s Pittsburgh Cycle is long, dark and heavy – overly so for some critics. Others, though, find its deep-cutting dissection of life as an African-American man in the 1980s powerfully poignant.
There’s less division over Fall’s direction – she’s widely praised for the intimacy and intensity she brings to the staging – and the performances of Pierre and Henry. The former impresses again after his debut at the Globe last year, and the legendary latter is as superbly smooth as you’d expect.
A mix of three and four-star reviews suggests that King Hedley II is a decidedly tough show, but one with plenty to chew on nonetheless.