Ray Fearon, Anthony Welsh, Richie Campbell
If the secret to story-telling is to leave the audience wanting more then writer Beau Willimon should already be in line for an Olivier Award.|
For one intense hour he whisks us to a rooftop in the Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans straight after Hurricane Katrina has struck. There two African-Americans struggle to stay alive when they find themselves surrounded by polluted water and with no help in sight.
But he leaves us wanting to learn more about the characters, and more about the range of factors that put them there.
Lower Ninth begins the Donmar Warehouse’s twelve-week residency at the smaller of the Trafalgar Studios to promote the work of young directors (in this instance Charlotte Westenra). It focuses on the relationship between father Malcom (Ray Fearon) and son E-Z (Anthony Welsh) as they struggle for survival on the roof of their house. Malcom was a drug-taker who walked out on his family, but who has latterly found God and is attempting to make amends. The young E-Z, however, remains bitter towards his father, and as the pair struggle for survival the vast range of emotions going through their heads are explored in breathtaking detail.
As the two thrash out their past actions, they flit between showing anger and resentment and supporting each other to the last. By turns they can be stoic, pragmatic, resigned or spirited, and Willimon’s excellent script enables us to feel every step of their emotional journey. The superb performances of Fearon and Welsh are also important in convincing us that Malcom really could be ready to throw E-Z off the roof in anger one minute, and yet willing to sacrifice so much to save him the next.
A third character is also key to the play’s dynamic. This is Lowboy who died in the flood and whose body is now wrapped up in a bin liner on the roof. E-Z initially appears neutral towards his death, ironically involving him in a game of twenty questions, before revealing his fury and grief. He is angry that Lowboy stupidly chose to seek refuge in his car, and we learn that E-Z even took great risks to try to rescue him and bring back his body.
The main difficulty lies in how much fertile ground remains unexplored, the 2005 floods being an obvious platform from which to consider socio-economic relationships. The suffering in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina resulted partly from the prior slashing of the federal emergency budget, but George W. Bush is mentioned just once and the idea that the rich have upped and left is only touched upon. We might also expect an exploration into the historical standing of blacks and whites, but such analysis is restricted to local relationships and an amusing story about how Noah’s flood created white people.
The play’s close is also unfulfilling. Clearly, Willimon understood that a neat ending would feel two-dimensional, but the open-ended conclusion arrives so abruptly that we are left feeling that this scenario could have been taken so much further.
I would still recommend Lower Ninth because the acting and script remain highly potent, and if a play can be this good, even when carrying a number of faults, it says a tremendous deal for its writer. Beau Willimon is a name to follow.
After Lower Ninth finishes on 23 October, the Donmar Warehouse’s residency at the Trafalgar Studios continues with Novecento (28 October – 20 November) and Les Parents Terribles (25 November – 18 December).