Strange Fruit, Bush Theatre

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by Maeve Ryan

In this powerful revival of Caryl Phillip’s Commonwealth Writers’ Prize-winning play, themes of inter-generational conflict, racism, machismo and cultural disconnection collide in a way that feels disturbingly current.

Errol awaits his elder brother Alvin’s return from a family funeral in the Caribbean, eager to cement their plan to become leaders in the radical anti-racism movement. Caryl Phillips, who like his protagonists was born in the Caribbean and grew up in England, wrote Strange Fruit the summer that he graduated from university in 1979, three years after the Notting Hill riots. He reflects, “my generation had become even more vocal and uncompromising in their determination not to become marginalised and ignored by British society in a manner which they felt had been visited upon their parents’ generation.”

Bright and able, Errol and Alvin have the excellent education their mother dreamed of in the new country, but Errol is clearly traumatised by a racial attack that is scarcely referenced by his family. His mother’s first experience of snow in England was similarly scarred by a racial and sexual attack about which her sons appear to know nothing. In Vivian, Phillips portrays a first-generation parent whose fearfulness to engage with her family’s past leaves her sons feeling unanchored in their present. In Vivian’s choice to consider only the future, her sons appear ill-equipped to place themselves confidently in the country in which they live.

Presented in the round, a wide pit dominates the Bush Theatre in this production. Emotionally-isolated, the family prowl along the edges of it or use the distance as a shield. Vivian and her sons verbally spar from the brink of the chasm, struggling to connect across this vast no-man’s-land. Moments of connection made in love, sex or violence are staged in the pit raising the emotional stakes at these times. Errol feels his ability and ambition unmet and he stalks along the edge of the carpeted abyss with a vital coiled energy, his pain only matched by his pride, in a noteworthy performance by Jonathan Ajayi that draws the unseen lines between trauma, mental health, machismo, racial exclusion and loneliness.

It is worth commenting upon the misogyny displayed by characters, male and female, in this play.  In Phillip’s original script, a leading character is listed simply as ‘Mother’. There’s nothing wrong with ‘Mother’ though it grates with the listing of the other characters, all of whom are listed by name (even the neighbour). It seems that a decision was made by the Bush along the way to list her as ‘Vivian’ in the cast list for this production, rather than by her relationship to her sons, raising questions as to whether the prism through which we are viewing this complex play today has slightly shifted. Vivian’s sons are disrespectful to their mother, referring to her simply as ‘she’ when she is not there and they list her failings obsessively, whether it is the food she makes for them or the politics she keeps.

Vivian has idealised their father for them, hiding his failings in an effort (she says) to feed their self-esteem.  However, in denying their sons’ the knowledge of their own father’s abusiveness, Vivian has left a chasm in their understanding. Indeed, her youngest son Errol is in an abusive relationship himself, with girlfriend Shelly. In a well-judged, heart-breaking depiction by Tilly Steele, Shelly appears dangerously unaware of how vulnerable her trained compliance makes her. Her father refers to her as a slag, and even the female neighbour alludes to her as such. Her tired stillness in the face of Errol’s violence and name-calling is painful to witness. It is a credit to Philip’s brutal, honest writing that the audience winced audibly, and to director Nancy Medina for bringing the theme of masculinism carefully to the fore.

This is a complex, dense play that is beautifully played by a talented ensemble and thoughtfully directed by Nancy Medina. Strange Fruit seems to tell us that in order to move towards a future, it is necessary to come to terms with our past. It is a pity that the storytelling in the final scene is slightly muddy, as this is a fine production of a play that still feels vital.

Strange Fruit runs through 27 July in London.

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