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Thursday 16th October 2008
Theatre Review | IN THE RED AND BROWN WATER | Young Vic

Subtitled ‘a fast and loose play’, Tarell Alvin McCraney’s In the Red and Brown Water is just that, both vibrant and cool and a work that young adult audiences will adore. The Young Vic is the perfect home for it. It is the second part of this acclaimed young American playwright’s Brother/Sister trilogy, the first being The Brothers Size, which played to great acclaim at the same venue this time last year.

Living in Louisiana, Oya’s hopes and dreams for her life are tested, first by her mother’s illness and then by her involvement with two men. It is a slight story, given potency by McCraney’s use of myth. As we watch, we cannot know that these characters, who speak with the fierce, punchy cadences of modern African-Americans, are bequeathed with the identities of African deities from the ancient mythology of Yoruba – that Oya, for instance, is the Goddess of the Niger River – yet the short, chanting sentences with their glimpses of poetic imagery resonate with rhythms from another, hidden, world.

And then, there is the water. The stage has been flooded to create a vast paddling pool through which the characters unknowingly wade, high heels, trainers and all. It is a fabulous metaphor for many facets of the play, yet it is such a focus-puller, that I cannot decide whether it is an asset to the production or not. An expanse of dark, still water is strangely hostile, an element where there can be no human rest and neither warmth nor comfort. Moreover, the fact that the characters make no reference to being in water makes us fearful for them – they don’t know their own world. This being Louisiana, too – if they don’t know that the levees have already been breached, how can they save themselves?

Yes, the glimmering reflections of the lights on the water that then bounce and ripple off the theatre balconies are beautiful, but the acoustics are not good, since the water snatches at the actors’ words. The main problem, though, is that the water does not move. If the water is flood water, then it should engulf. If the water reflects Oya’s preoccupation with her own fertility, then it should ebb and flow with the phases of the moon. If Oya is a river goddess, that river should run.

Interestingly, the published play contains no reference to a flooded stage, suggesting that it is not McCraney’s idea, but that of the director, Walter Meierjohann and his designer, Miriam Buether. They have taken one speech and, in particular, one line, ‘Brown skin in the red water’ and washed the whole play with it.

It is a tribute to the energy of this cast of actors that they motor through the water as if it were not there, attacking the script with such verve and humour that nothing holds them back, not the distancing technique of having to recite their own stage directions, nor the risk of trench foot. Ony Uhiara is wonderful as Oya, fresh and sparky and fizzing with her dreams of being a runner. Adjoa Andoh as her mother, Mama Moja, gives a fierce, totally unsentimental performance, burning with love for her daughter but fading out of life, and Cecilia Noble is an outrageously funny Aunt Elegua. In fact, the whole cast impresses, particularly with its physicality. It is as if the more the water tries to drag them down, the stronger they become, as if the whole play is a metaphor for the blues.

English and Theatre Studies teachers at secondary schools throughout the country should be block booking this show for their students because it really is theatre for a young, cool audience. Never boring, it would inspire and delight them. Ambitious but not precious, modern and yet ancient, it could only be written by a young playwright and needs an equally young audience – whooping laughing and disrespectful – to fully appreciate it.

© Claire Ingrams 2008

  • In the Red and Brown Water runs at the Young Vic until 8 November 2008.

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