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Father Comes Home From The Wars (Parts 1, 2 and 3) review at Royal Court – ‘assured and poetic’

A scene from Steve Toussaint (Hero), centre, in Father Comes Home From The Wars (Parts 1, 2 and 3) at the Jerwood Theatre Upstairs. Photo: Tristram Kenton

This American Civil War triptych by Pulitzer-winning US playwright Suzan-Lori Parks uses the conventions of the epic – it’s inspired by the Odyssey – to tell a story of slavery, race and what it means to be free.

Originally staged at the Public Theater in New York in 2014, Father Comes Home From the Wars is made up of three parts that share a story arc. In the first Hero, a slave on a Texan plantation must decide whether he goes with his Confederate boss-master to fight against those who wish to abolish slavery, and potentially gain his freedom in the process, or stays at home. In the second Hero’s master, played with honeyed menace by John Stahl, has taken a Union soldier captive and a dialogue ensues on the worth and value of a man; in the third Hero returns to those who have waited for him.

The play uses the conventions of Greek drama. There’s a chorus and a Messenger – in the delightful form of Dex Lee’s talking dog. The writing is poetic and richly textured, full of echoes and asides, moving deftly between registers. It works as drama – the middle section is particularly gripping, with a fascinating twist – and as something more fable-like.

Only very occasional does Jo Bonney’s production lull. Steve Toussaint’s Hero manages to be both an archetype and a man with drives, hopes and dreams. Jimmy Akingbola, as Homer, whose foot was cut off after he attempted to run away, and Tom Bateman as the imprisoned Union officer, also do strong work.

Parks is a writer of ambition (these are the first three of what will be a nine part project), skill and soul, repurposing old forms in new ways and engaging with the ripples of history, telling a story that has yet to end.

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Ambitious, assured and poetic trilogy set during the American Civil War