The Royale***** (Bush Theatre)

Posted: April 9, 2015 in Theatre

the royale

In the racially segregated American Deep South of 1905, there existed a black Heavyweight Boxing Champion, but a match with the reigning World Champion was unthinkable. American writer Marco Ramirez drew inspiration from the true story of Jack Johnson for this remarkable new play which details the efforts of fictional black champion, Jay Jackson, to set up and win a “unification” contest with the World Champion, also known as the “Great White Hope”. In such a contest, he would be fighting not only his white opponent, who is never seen, but also his own conscience as he struggles to come to terms with the terrible consequences that victory could bring for himself, his family and the entire black community. Director Madani Younis’ in-the-round production takes place in a smoky room, on and around a square wooden platform, adorned by just two stools; at one point, a punch bag descends and Jackson thumps it repeatedly as if hammering home to the audience every detail of his anger and frustration. Giving a perfect performance, Nicholas Pinnock brings out all of Jackson’s steely determination and wounded pride. Similarly Gershwyn Eustache Jnr as his loyal trainer, Ewan Stewart as his wily manager and Clint Dyer as his rookie sparring partner are all spot-on. At the heart of Jackson’s personal motivation lies childhood images of his sister’s distress when looking at glamour magazines and never seeing women who resemble her. Contradictorily, it is this sister, Nina (played with quiet dignity by Frances Ashman) who argues the case to him not to proceed with the fight for fear of the repercussions. The writing of Ramirez and the direction of Younis are as packed with muscle and free of flab as any of the actors seen as boxers on stage. Not a punch misses the target, this is a relentless 90 minutes, straight through – Thud! Thud! Thud! The thrilling fight sequences are staged in impressionistic style, with action freezes during which Jackson’s thoughts are conveyed. Of course, boxing is only the play’s backdrop; the real story is of the slow advance of the American Civil Rights movement, paying tribute to the men or women who have the courage to take the big or small individual steps forward. When the audience stands and cheers loudly at the end, it feels like being amongst the crowd at a real boxing match. This is magnificent theatre!

Performance date: 8 April 2015

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