Writer: Tarell Alvin McCraney
Director: Bijan Sheibani
Reviewer: Scott Matthewman
As David Lan comes to the end of his tenure as artistic director of the Young Vic, and with Tarell Alvin McCraney’s Moonlight coming up to the anniversary of its Best Picture win at the Academy Awards, what better time to revive the theatre’s production of McCraney’s fable of black brotherhood, first staged here in 2007.
The story revolves around the jovial, kind-hearted and very-so-slightly workshy Oshoosi Size (Jonathan Ajayi), newly released from prison after a two-year stretch, is living with his intensely serious brother Ogun (Sope Dirisu) and trying to get his life back on track. But just as Ogun (named after the Yoruba god of hard work) tries to exert a good influence on his baby brother, Oshoosi is also tempted by the friendship and companionship offered by his former cellmate Elegba (Anthony Welsh), named after the Yoruba trickster god.
The push-and-pull of these competing influences would risk being pedestrian were it not for McCraney’s construction of it as a poetic fantasy. The characters announce the stage directions as they perform them, and director Bijan Sheibani reflects that in his staging: the Young Vic’s in-the-round staging is etched with a white chalk circle and dusted with red powder, suggesting both wrestling ring and a site for religious circumambulation.
Together with movement director Aline David, Sheibani fuses the actors’ physicality in their mimes of everyday life – brushing teeth, repairing cars – with an approach that verges on the most thrilling of contemporary dance performance. From pacing around the edge of the circle in the apparent heat of the Louisiana sun to Oshoosi’s literal pull between his brother and his “brother”, every physical action becomes an expression of the motive and emotive sides of the three characters.
Dirisu’s Ogun flits between anger at his brother’s lackadaisical nature, frustration at the paternal role he has been forced into, and the very obvious deep love he has for Oshoosi. In contrast, Welsh is calm, sedate even, his doe-eyed acceptance of, and affection for, his friend as much as calm and steadying influence on the ex-con as it is an avenue for trouble.
Between them, Ajayi – remarkably still only in his third year of drama school, given the assured confidence of his portrayal – delivers a blistering performance that cannot help but sweep the audience up in its wake, whether reliving a recurring nightmare or fooling around singing Otis Redding songs with his brother. By the end, as the two brothers come to a conclusion about the next stage in each others’ lives, the tension and emotion between Ajayi and Dirisu is heart-stopping in its intensity.
The overall result is a lyrical look at male sexuality and fraternal love that feels less like a revival of a decade-old production than a piece for today, not least in its reflection of young black men’s experience with the police and how that differs from that of their white counterparts. The Brothers Size is a play that demands your attention, receives it willingly, and remains with you for long afterwards. What more could one ask for?
Runs until 14 February | Image: Marc Brenner