Even if you know what to expect, even if youve been told, when you first step into the reconfigured Young Vic auditorium and see the pool of water that has replaced the stage, its hard not to gasp, for the space has been completely transformed.
With the Bush out of action due to repeated flooding, theres something more than a little amusing about a theatre intentionally filling itself with water. This is all in aid of the Young Vics production of In the Red and Brown Water, the second play in Tarell Alvin McCraneys proposed Brother/Sister trilogy and a prequel of sorts to the wonderful The Brothers Size.
Like its predecessor it takes elements of Yoruba myth and transplants them to a Louisiana setting, and like Size it also has the world of dreams seeping into the waking world (the title comes from a dream recounted by one of the characters). Both plays share the same spare yet poetic language and the same device of having characters speak their stage directions while acting them out, but while Size was a tight three-hander, this, as McCraneys sub-title indicates, is a bigger, looser work.
In the Red and Brown Water takes its narrative cue from a story told by the characters in the earlier play. Oya is a promising athlete who gives up a possible scholarship to care for her sick mother. With her escape route ripped away from her, she ends up staying in town after her mothers death and becomes involved in a love triangle between Ogun Size, the stuttering mechanic who genuinely cares for her, and the brash but charismatic soldier, Shango (whose every entrance is marked by a suggestive slide on a trombone). But Oyas real torment comes from the fact that, despite having two lovers, she is unable to conceive; it is the absence of a child in a culture where womanhood is sealed by the bearing of babies that hurts her most, that pushes her edgewards.
Strikingly attired in purple satin running shorts and yellow vest, Ony Uhiara is superb as Oya, vibrant and alive yet gradually weighted down, deflating before the audiences eyes. Javone Prince and Ashley Walters also do decent work as her two suitors. And designer Miriam Beuthers set is truly something, appearing bottomless though barely an inch deep, the water evoking both the Louisiana swamp and some mythical half-way world.
When the characters are still, the flat black surface acts like a mirror, creating doubles of everything; when there is movement, ripples spread across it like music. In a particularly poignant scene Oya floats her running shoes on the water like toy boats, sending them away from her. Its only when there are a number of people on stage, and much resultant splashing, that you are reminded that the cast are essentially performing in a great big puddle.
Despite several instances of lyricism and beauty, McCraneys play lacks some of the focus of Size: Oyas descent into despair doesnt quite feel credible and a nightclub scene in the second act feels awkward while also serving to highlight the inevitable limitations of the water-filled set (a couple of people grooving on boxes does not a convincing club scene make). But, though it doesnt quite match the heights of its predecessor currently playing in the Young Vics studio with a new cast it remains a distinctive and exciting piece of theatre and bodes well for McCraneys imminent Wig Out! at the Royal Court next month.
Tarell Alvin McCraney’s The Brothers Size is also playing at the Young Vic’s Maria Studio from 8 October – 8 November 2008.