Noughts And Crosses – December 2007

8/10

Adapted by Dominic Cooke from the novel by Malorie Blackman

Directed by: Dominic Cooke

Company: RSC

Venue: Stratford Civic Hall

Date: Wednesday 19th December 2007

This was a powerful drama, well acted, and successfully aimed at the younger generation. Starting from the problems of racial segregation and repression, Malorie Blackman’s story of the love between a young boy and girl takes the Romeo and Juliet theme and turns things on their head, producing a modern story told by adolescents about the difficulties of growing up and leading a life of your own choosing when society’s prejudices stand in the way. A lot for one evening, and it’s amazing how it all gets fitted in – Dominic Cooke has adapted this really well, though not having read the book I can’t say how faithful he’s been, just that this works well as a drama.

I felt the first half was a bit slow, but it did set up the characters and situation well for us. The second half introduced the other family, and this helped to round out the relationships and the context of a repressive society. The plot concerns Callum, a young white man, and his friend Sephy, a young black woman. In this society, whites are called “noughts” and blacks, “crosses”, or “blanks” and “daggers”, respectively. This is a society in which black people are well off, in charge, and determined to keep it that way. White folk are despised, denied opportunities and treated like shit. Naturally, Callum and Sephy’s friendship doesn’t go down well with anyone, and they go through all sorts of ups and downs in their relationship to each other, as well as their family and friends, culminating in Callum’s refusal to save his own life as it would mean Sephy agreeing to abort their baby. The play ends with Sephy cradling her new born girl – a ray of hope for the future.

Along the way we get to see how people can become involved in violence and lose their way when so many bad things happen to them and their families. Callum’s sister was beaten up for dating a cross, and retreats into madness for a few years before killing herself. Callum’s Dad gets involved with a Liberation group, and allows himself to be convicted for setting off a bomb which killed seven people. He does this partly to protect his other son, Jude, who was involved, and partly out of grief for his daughter’s death (at least, that’s what I reckon). His determination to die leads him to attempt escape, which gets him killed. Sephy herself is beaten up at school for daring to sit with noughts at lunch. It’s a bleak picture, and yet there’s a lot of humour, and the love between the two main characters lightens much of the darkness. There’s a strong sense of compassion. We see the suffering in Sephy’s family – a mother who drinks, an absent father more interested in his political career than his family, and an unexplained rift between the two mothers, who had been on some sort of friendly footing until a few years before. Although the story is mostly told from the youngsters’ point of view, we do get to see the effect the social situation is having on the people around them.

The performance space was new to us. It’s basically a flat area with seats on three sides, and entrances in the corners. The two leads often came on and spoke directly to us without any props. When needed, furniture was brought on by the cast, chairs were held up until all were ready, and then slammed down together – very energetic and lively. Occasionally the people on stage would freeze, while Callum and Sephy would talk or move around them. It was a very direct style, and worked well, especially for the asides. With the audience on three sides, it was noticeable that the two leads were careful to include everyone, moving around as necessary, even when on the loo! (It’s in the small toilet cubicle which gets wheeled on to stage that Sephy gets beaten up.) When the characters turned on the TV for the news, the reporter would walk onto the stage, along with any interviewees, and speak directly to the viewers. Talk about having TV in your living room! I found this worked very well, as it emphasised the closeness there was between the characters in the action and what was being showing on TV.

The cast were excellent. The two leads – Richard Madden as Callum and Ony Uhiara as Sephy – gave superb performances, managing to grow up just the right amount over the two or three years of the action, maturing from gawky adolescents to young adults. The physical aspect of their love was also well done, developing from the first exploratory kiss, heads to one side, to full blown sex described only in words, but all the more powerful for that (for some things, less is more). Their first night together in Sephy’s bed was a lovely depiction of innocent love, and the way Sephy’s mother nearly caught him the next morning was very funny. Fortunately, Sephy’s ally Sarah, her mother’s secretary, helps out by pushing one of Callum’s shoes under the bed.

It’s difficult to single anyone else out, but I do want to mention Jo Martin as Sephy’s mother, Jasmine. She gave a wonderful sense of that character’s “hinterland”, her suffering as she gives in to try and make things work, the drinking to “smooth out the rough edges”, the support she gives secretly to help Callum’s father during his trial, and the unknown reason for all this – what happened those few years before that caused the rift between her and Callum’s mother?

Although I found it interesting to see this topsy-turvy view of racism, I didn’t really relate to either group. I found it hard to believe the noughts were really downtrodden – was that just my conditioning, or was I influenced by possibly unconscious body language from the actors? I can remember wanting to belong to a group when I was that age – we’d moved several times, and it always seemed hard to find like-minded friends of my own age – but I don’t ever remember wanting to create a “them” to support the “us”. Maybe I was lucky not to fall in with the “wrong” sort?

Looking back, probably the only criticism I can find is that the play does sometimes feel a bit like a checklist of discussion points to be covered. The action comes so thick and fast, especially in the second half (20 minutes longer than the first half), and the scenes are so short, that there’s not a lot of time for depth of character to develop. Actually, it’s surprising how much depth is achieved – another compliment to the actors and the adaptation.

Anyway, the play raised a lot of interesting questions, and more than usual I find myself wondering how I would handle some of these situations. The youngsters at the play tonight were obviously engaged as well, and I suspect there will be some interesting discussions as a result of this.

© 2007 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

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