Thursday, April 9, 2015

The Royale, Bush Theatre, London

When men campaigning for parliamentary reform in the eighteenth century planned to hold public meetings in defiance of government attempts to silence them, they were warned that they would be responsible for any bloodshed that resulted. When the suffragettes fought back against the government’s refusal to grant women the vote, they were blamed for antagonising the opposition and bringing their brutal treatment on themselves. And when Jay “The Sport” Jackson, the protagonist of The Royale, steps into the boxing ring to fight the white heavyweight champion of the world, it is with his sister’s warning ringing in his ears: if he wins, he’s going to get African-American people killed. 

In Marco Ramirez’s brilliant play, we see Jackson struggle to balance his personal desire to beat the fighter known as “the great White Hope” against the threat of widespread reprisals. For this is America in the age of Jim Crow – racial segregation – and it’s been a struggle to even get the reigning champion to agree to fight a black man. With violent incidents already erupting, Johnson’s own life is in danger, and his family has been threatened.

I was interested in a play about boxing because my forthcoming novel – Bloodie Bones: A Dan Foster Mystery – introduces Dan Foster, a Bow Street Runner who is also a pugilist – a bare knuckle fighter. Dan is sent to Somerset to investigate the murder of a gamekeeper. The murder is connected to protests about a recent enclosure, which has deprived local people of their ancient rights to gather fuel and food. The enclosure movement took away people’s homes and livelihoods, creating a poverty-stricken workforce forced to work for low wages. The anti-enclosure protesters faced imprisonment, transportation and execution – so the theme of what people risk when they stand out against oppression resonated with me. 
With a minimalistic set, the action of The Royale is played out with a stomping rhythm. The actors move with grace and speak with passion. Nicholas Pinnock as Jay is a wonder, and there are fine performances from Ewan Stewart, Gershwyne Eustache Jnr, Clint Dyer and Frances Ashman. This is theatre at its best, and I’d be recommending you to book your seats just as fast as you can, but the whole run has sold out – and deservedly so.

I was lucky enough to see the matinee performance on 8 April 2015. Even luckier as I came away with a souvenir! There’s a scene where Jay is given a book sent to his eleven-year old nephew in which racists have written a threatening note. Jay tears out the page, screws it up and throws it to the ground. When the play ended I noticed it lying near my feet and picked it up! It’s now slotted inside my copy of the programme – which is, incidentally, astonishing value for £3.50 as it contains the full text of the play.

Bloodie Bones: A Dan Foster Mystery will be published by SilverWood Books in May 2015.

Find out more about The Royale at the Bush Theatre Website

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