Festival Theatre, Malvern, Wednesday 10th April, 2013
Troy Maxson, sanitation worker, husband, father, bully and raconteur likes to hold court in the yard of his Pittsburgh home. It is 1957 and he wins a minor victory at work, becoming the first black man to be promoted from loading garbage onto the back of a truck to driving the truck himself. This is the ‘civil rights’ element of August Wilson’s plot, but the remarkable thing, historically, is the playwright’s body of work itself. Blue collar black folks airing their grievances, revealing their personal lives, laughing, loving, fighting – all of that is here in a powerful drama to rival Arthur Miller.
Now a period piece, the play still chimes with the present. Wife Rose bemoans the lack of aspiration she sees in the community, people never realising their lot in life could and should be improved. Troy’s fatal flaw (he is ‘one for the ladies’) is not a rare trait and, more generally, we can all identify with that destructive impulse, when we go ahead and do what we oughtn’t, just to shake things up. Troy seems unable to settle for what he has: at work this is to his credit; at home it is nothing but detrimental.
Lenny Henry is blisteringly good as Troy. His experience as a stand-up brings life to Troy’s tall stories. The comic timing is perfect. Henry also brings depth to the character, in a multi-faceted performance that is touching and powerful.
Tanya Moodie is excellent as wife Rose, able to stand her ground. We feel Troy’s tragic fall but it is Rose who gets our sympathy. There is a shift in the power structure of the relationship as she finds a way to accommodate disaster, while Troy shuns his youngest son out of little more than stubborn pride.
Ashley Zhangazha is son Cory, whose dreams of professional (American) football are trampled by his dad because Troy’s own ambitions of baseball were never realised. ‘Swinging for the fences’ is no longer encouraged. He and Henry share some tense moments. Colin McFarlane brings out Troy’s more waggish aspects as best friend Jim Bono – their eventual alienation, understated, is also touching. Troy’s fence around the yard is complete, shutting some people out and keeping some people in.
Paulette Randall’s direction is unfussy, giving the characters room to live. Shifts between humour and tension are handled extremely well. The play ends with a non-naturalistic moment as brother Gabriel puffs ineffectually into his trumpet, as a warning to St Peter that the time of Judgment is at hand. We are suddenly plunged into the broken mind of this mentally impaired war veteran with a metal plate in his head. The lighting changes. Drums pound. He dances. It’s an incongruous finish, and a little jarring. Perhaps a more downbeat ending would be more in keeping; I don’t know. It’s what people were buzzing about as we filed out of the auditorium.
This quirky bit aside, Fences is a rewarding piece, a convincing portrayal of a strong man brought low by his own actions – and that is the essence of tragedy.