Dynastic Turmoil in Nathaniel Martello-White’s ‘Torn’ at The Royal Court Theatre

tornTorn is the second play from British playwright sensation Nathaniel Martello-White. His first play, 2012’s satire Blackta at the Young Vic, made everyone sit up and take notice. His latest play will have them nodding endorsements, and may even enlighten them a little.

As possibly the first British mixed race dynastic family saga, Martello-White has layered it in traditional family values as well as some of the dysfunction of our time. Royal Court Theatre Director Richard Twyman has managed this candid, engrossing piece of theatre by populating it with 9 impressive actors:

Angel (Adelle Leonce) is a 20-something, emotionally damaged South Londoner. Now a young mother, she is compelled to save herself by organising an intervention with her scattered, partially estranged family, to force a confrontation, an admission, a cleansing of the tainted air that each family member has breathed and propagated for years. “There are too many secrets!” Couzin protests. That said, there are just a handful of profoundly disturbing secrets that Angel must, and will, have aired before the day of reckoning is done.

“The ting” happened years ago. Or did it? The account of a confused and fearful 10 year old, suffering the trauma of inadequate parental love, is interrogated in an initially locked room of 9 family members. The reverberations of a primary neglect and admissions of subsequent, unspeakable things are forced from a family of 1st and 2nd generation mixed race Brits during the enforced reunion of a family torn apart all those years ago. But, what is the truth? Can blame truly be apportioned to satisfy the need of 2nd generation mixed race Angel?

The performers – black, white, mixed race – were each cast specifically to demonstrate the spectrum of skin colours and their perceived or inherent identities. Leonce imbues Angel with just the right amount of both untouched and sullied innocence, as Martello-White weaves flashbacks and memories throughout the piece. Angel herself shifts between absolute conviction and juvenile insecurity, yet you will find yourself rooting for her to persevere and find her truth. She is the main protagonist, but, each cast member has a chance to shine, to put their character’s case before the family’s judgment or reject the intervention and no-one wastes the opportunity.

Jamael Westman’s Brotha is light-skinned and hazel-eyed, 1st Twin’s first born. Westman skillfully underscores the hard worker who just wants to make the best of his own new family, with the exasperation and stubbornness of one who sees no value in revisiting the past.

Indra Ové’s 1st Twin is light-skinned, green-eyed and mother to Angel and Brotha. Ové more than meets the challenge of playing 1st Twin’s tough façade, ruthless decision-making and emotional manipulation, whilst conveying the deep-seated vulnerability which compromises her every choice, no matter their repercussions.

Franc Ashman’s 2nd Twin is brave and deadly. Ashman manages to play 2nd Twin’s prosperous and mannered façade with a quick wit and subtle edge which hints at a deadly courage just below the surface. She is stunning to watch.

Osy Ikhile’s Couzin is the dark-skinned pride and joy of 2nd Twin. Ikhile brings a slightly disconcerting intensity to Couzin, the successful and accomplished artist, nurtured by the family. He is very much in control, and very much in touch with the honesty driving his creative centre. But, he also wrestles with questions of his very nature.

Kirsty Bushell’s Aunty J is the voice of the past. She is the white older sister to the twins and a witness who prefers to ignore Angel’s issues and instead redirects her support to Couzin.

Lorna Brown’s Aunty L, harbours a desperate love for Angel and yearns for her well-being. What she lacks is the strength, or maybe the right, to act on her behalf. Brown does conflicted devotion complete justice.

James Hillier’s Steve is 1st Twin’s 2nd, white, husband and is lauded (by her) as the family’s saviour. Yet, is he? Armed with a superficial gift of the gab, is he altruism itself or a master of redirection?

torn_castRoger Griffiths’s Brian is 1st Twin’s first husband, Angel’s Jamaican father. He has a long history of ineffectively dealing with his own short-comings and Angel is the more vulnerable for it. Griffiths brings a cultural truth and an uneasy vulnerability to the part – you may recognise an old uncle in him. His patois is flawless, whilst being completely comprehensible – not easy to accomplish!

The Jerwood Upstairs is an intimate space usually ingeniously fashioned to accommodate the production. This is the first time it has been used in its stripped back form, like the piece itself, to its natural state. It is a big airy room, with a small balcony at one end and the audience seated around the edges. An effective theatre-in-the-round is delineated by 8 chairs placed in a circle and four ‘corner’ stage lights. The imagination rises to meet that of the playwright and director in the absence of any further props, though the coffee is real.

Kicking off at 7pm, all 90 minutes (no interval) played out perfectly against a summer evening allowed in by the large, high windows, layering in the mood of daylight passing into shadow. Not only does it emphasise the feeling of being locked in an intense emotional confrontation for hours and hours, it also provides the perfect paradox to the spectacle on stage before you. Enlightenment dawns within as darkness falls without! Unfortunately, it was just a magical bonus for press night, since the run will play either as 3pm matinees or 7:45pm evening performances.

Martello-White has used both local and Caribbean-British cultural vernacular, occasionally heightened, and reasonably rich with profanity. The profanity is justified, given the subject matter. But, I’m not sure the intermittent use of cadenced rhythm worked for me. However, it is a creative choice Martello-White makes to satisfy his love of the word and his feeling that there is poetry in everyday language and, it may work for you.  He is very candid with some of his exchanges. I’m not sure that those who have not spent time with African-Caribbean teenagers at their leisure will have heard some of the accusations and admissions before, and possibly not so bluntly. Then, in almost every other aspect of this difficult story, including the central theme, Martello-White exercises a deft restraint and wisdom beyond his years.

This is, perhaps, why there were one or two other choices which didn’t really work for me in this, a modern play: The comparison of “harsher” features (African) with “subtle” (mixed) could have been better handled because, though the comparison is probably fundamental to this family’s issues, I don’t think ‘harsh’ is the right word to describe the sentiment of the character using it, which is not in anger. They are simply African features vs more European/ Raphaelite/ Roman/ aquiline, and this particular choice jarred for me. I also felt dismayed at the outdated choice of the character who offers an educating, possibly shoehorned in, speech on African history.

So, Torn will give everyone a lot to think about. It is chaotic and fast-moving with voices, themes and even timelines sometimes layering over each other. Whilst a little more clarity of especially the latter might be welcome, it does keep the audience a little on edge and paying attention, and supports the emotional turbulence which drives the play.

Torn previewed from September 7th, with opening night on the 12th. It runs until October 15th, so do get along and experience a slice of British big city truth.

Particular standouts in an excellent all-round cast, are Ové, Ikhile, Ashman and Griffiths.

For tickets visit http://www.royalcourttheatre.com/whats-on/torn

Twitter: @royalcourt  #Torn

Review by @DescantDeb