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King Hedley II starring Lenny Henry at Theatre Royal Stratford East, London – ‘an electric surge of rage’

Lenny Henry and Martina Laird in King Hedley II at Theatre Royal Stratford East. Photo: Tristram Kenton Lenny Henry and Martina Laird in King Hedley II at Theatre Royal Stratford East. Photo: Tristram Kenton
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The scope of August Wilson’s play is staggering. It spans the entire universe from the smallest speck – in the opening scenes ex-con King Hedley plants seeds in the barren dirt in his backyard – up to the very biggest, to the power of god and fate.

Vengeful King lives with his mama Ruby and his wife Tonya. He and his mate Mister want to open a video store – they want to ‘be something’ – but the only way they can earn the money to fund their scheme is through theft.

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. And, sometimes, it’s necessary to dial it up to 11, which is what director Nadia Fall does here.

This was the ninth play in Wilson’s decades-spanning Pittsburgh Cycle and in this revival it becomes a huge electric surge of rage – it’s like Greek tragedy meets soap opera.

That unbridled intensity isn’t achieved through gimmickry. Peter McKintosh’s set never changes. The parade of wooden slatted houses and their chicken-wire enclosed backyards stay the same. All that sustains us for the hefty running time is Wilson’s mighty script, Fall’s taut and riveting direction, and the efforts of an extraordinary cast.

Above all, this production is one of full-on anger. Aaron Pierre’s King Hedley is a twisted knot of rage. There’s barely a moment in his ferocious performance when his muscles aren’t straining, his veins popping.

Returning to Wilson after starring in Fences in 2013, Lenny Henry is a model of charisma. He plays the hustler Elmore, who returns to ex-girlfriend Ruby years after he just walked out on her. His swagger and roguish smile are entrancing, but although it’s Henry’s face on the poster, this is an ensemble piece.

There’s Leo Wringer’s Cassandra-like character Stool Pigeon, either the maddest or the sanest of the lot, spouting lines from the Bible. There are much-needed moments of laughter from Dexter Flanders as King’s friend Mister.

Then, there are the women in this toxic, masculine world. The amazing Martina Laird, as Ruby, leans on the railings and the door frames of the set like she’s lived in it for decades, and like she’s tired of all the crap life has given her. And Cherrelle Skeete, playing King’s wife Tonya, is also fantastic: she gets a searing, lacerating speech in which she worries about bringing a child into the world. “I ain’t raising no kid to have somebody shoot him,” she screams. “I don’t want to raise no more babies when you got to fight to keep them alive.” It’s another outstanding performance from an actor proving to be one of the very best around.

It is a slog. Three and a half hours of the unrelenting hardness of life does begin to weigh heavy after a while. There’s murder, cancer, jail, poverty, abortion, revenge. 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. Sometimes rage is the only reaction left.

Theatre Royal Stratford East’s Nadia Fall: ‘Change is uncomfortable but you have to reinvent and not stagnate’

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Lenny Henry returns to August Wilson in a searing, epic production that is fantastically performed and full of rage