Writer: Suzan-Lori Parks
Director: Jo Bonney
Reviewer: Maryam Philpott
‘It’s natural for a man to want to go to War’ and Suzan Lori-Parks’ 2014 play, making its UK debut at the Royal Court, focuses on the struggle between being a good man in a domestic setting and a worthy soldier. That idea is considerably more complex when the man in question is a slave asked to fight alongside his master in the American Civil War, a conflict rarely covered in modern theatre, but considered by historians to be the first modern war.
In a trilogy of 50-minute plays, Father Comes Home from the Wars focuses on the character of Hero, a healthy and docile slave-valet who is offered freedom in return for his military service. In the first play,A Measure of a Man, Hero returns to the slave hut where his friends are taking bets on whether he’ll go. Hero vacillates between his love for the underwritten and rather wet Penny (Nadine Marshall) and his duty to the ‘Boss-Master’ when an act of betrayal forces his hand.
This first piece interestingly defies the audience’s expectation, showing a complicated relationship with the slave owner that opens up a number of interesting themes including the cost and expectation of freedom and ideas about masculinity in times of conflict. Hero’s (Steve Toussaint) central conundrum – whether fighting for the wrong side is worth it to be release from slavery – is well-played and the wider cast of rather two-dimensional characters add to the comedy by betting on his decision. From the start, it’s clear that Hero is a commodity to be bargained for, even by his friends.
This theme is picked up in the second play, A Battle in the Wilderness, which is by far the strongest of the three. It opens as Smith, a wounded Union soldier, is held in a wooden cage by Rebel Army member The Colonel, who also happens to be Hero’s owner. Smith is a ‘sober and slave-less man’ who sows seeds of discontent between the men and by promoting the northern cause, gives Hero another choice to make.
The strength of this middle section is how clearly debates about slavery and the value of human beings are nicely woven into the animosity between the opposing soldiers. Tom Bateman’s Smith and John Stahl’s Colonel make excellent sparring partnersbut manage to create also a wider sense of a vicious war being fought nearby. Stahl, in particular, relishes his objectionable character, but we also see the Colonel’s vanity and anoccasional paternal need for Hero, which adds real texture to what could have been a pantomime villain. And again in Toussaint’s performance we see Hero’s difficult relationship with his own enslavement, wanting freedom but proud of being worth a monetary price.
It is the final part of the evening which is the most troublesome, and the slightly heightened reality of the first two is exaggerated further in a concluding episode that is played almost entirely for laughs, losing the thoughtful tone of the earlier plays. The Union of My Confederate Parts is a mirror of Act One, taking place about a year later back at the Colonel’s house, where a group of slaves are on the run trying to convince Hero’s original lover, Penny, and friend Homer to go with them, while both wait for his return.
The focus here is too much on the convoluted romance stories and local dramas, and not enough on the consequences of war for the individuals involved. Hero, now called Ulysses (after General Grant), has certainly been changed by conflict but not enough of the conversation here examines what war has done to him and how it affects his former subservience. Earlier, we’d see him subsuming his own beliefs and humanity for his master and there could be a stronger discussion about post-war masculinity and the difficulty of reintegrating at home. Instead, the tone is too light, occasionally bordering on sitcom with even a surreal talking dog – a hilarious performance by Dex Lee but not a fitting end to this story, and those two-dimensional characters from Act One, don’t get any meatier.
The intention is that Parks will write a further six plays about these characters, making nine stories in total, a mammoth and potentially fascinating achievement if she makes it. Yet, there is a strong argument for brevity and, at over three hours in total, this is a long evening, with each section starting to drag towards the end.
Neil Patel’s set design simple evokes the periodwhile having the slave house symbolically float over proceedings in Act Two is a loaded with meaning. Still, Father Comes Home from the War has some really interesting things to say about the inhumanity of this period of American history and the kinds of choices open to people with really no choices at all.
Runs until: 22 October 2016 | Image: Tristram Kenton