Chiaroscuro – Bush Theatre, London

Writer: Jackie Kay

Director: Lynette Linton

Reviewer: Miriam Sallon

The final play in the Bush Theatre’s ‘Passing the Baton’ initiative, and the first for Lynette Linton as artistic director, Chiaroscurobrings four women of various origin stories together to battle through the ever-daunting question of identity; of self-discovery or, indeed, self-invention.

Through a combination of song and spoken word, each character muddles through their past and present, and in doing so, comes up against their own and each other’s prejudices and limitations. Chiaroscuro was written in 1986, but its subject matter is still relevant as ever, tackling identity politics in general, and sexuality, race and mental health in particular.

Normally a play will pick one issue and dally around it. Writer Jackie Kay, however, is unafraid to mirror reality’s messiness: there is no clear binary of those who suffer, and those who cause suffering; whilst each character carries their own cross, they also show their own intolerance and unkindness.

Shiloh Coke, musical director and composer, brings Kay’s poetry to life through trickling melodies, close harmonies and heavy bass lines. The stage is set up as a recording studio (as designed by Moi Tran) and throughout, the women appear in various combinations to compose or perform, as part of the narrative and to explain it. The collective musical talent of the cast is quite astonishing, each moving casually from one instrument to another, from drums to vocals to keys to bass. Perhaps it’s the virtuosity of the performers that gives this production a feeling of a collaborative venture; when they first introduce themselves, their stories feel so close to truth as though they had workshopped their own stories and struggles in to the script.

There’s a fair amount of humour already in the text, but there are some laughs it would have been impossible for Kay to script. The audience feels free to laugh even, sometimes, when the subject is serious, bringing them closer to the characters and their plight. In fact on various occasions, the audience feels free to heckle- something rarely witnessed in theatre.

The material dealt with is serious and complicated, and it does feel a little as though the resolution is met with too much ease. Regardless, the characters feel whole and honest, as do the performances. Chiaroscuro may have been a forgotten script, but hopefully it will find its rightful place in the contemporary canon. Kudos to the Bush Theatre for finding such a gem in the archives.

Runs until: 5 October 2019 | Image: Johan Persson

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