The Amen Corner at the National Theatre
A brave choice for the National: religion is called into question in Rufus Norris’ stunning revival of James Baldwin’s The Amen Corner. Set in an impoverished 50s Harlem, the play examines the role of the church in family life, as well as compassion and moral hypocrisy within this African-American community.
Against an atmospheric backdrop of live gospel music and heady jazz, hard-nosed pastor Sister Margaret (Marianne Jean-Baptiste) attempts to steer her congregation, her saints and her son David (Eric Kofi Abrefa) down what she believes to be a righteous path. But soon this unwavering code of virtue is shaken as revelations from her past come to surface.
Jean-Baptiste is deservedly the star of the show and all the more exquisite to watch when paired with a restrained performance from the ever elegant Sharon D Clarke. Both are compelling throughout, depicting the complexity and power of Baldwin’s women and mirroring the play’s themes to great effect.
Although slow to start, the tension in this production quickly builds from the moment Brother Boxer (Donovan F Blackwood) hints at the return of Margaret’s husband Luke (Lucian Msamati). This not only foreshadows the events to follow but also the duplicitous nature of almost all of the central characters.
These gossiping scenes offer some light relief in an otherwise weighty play, with the actors rapidly firing off Baldwin’s shrewd dialogue. Cecilia Noble is particularly remarkable in portraying Sister Moore’s insincerity: her high-pitched singsong voice and comically timed expressions move effortlessly between pious and catty in a physical, scene-stealing performance.
From the captivating leads to the lush harmonies of the London Community Gospel Choir, Norris’ adaptation is entirely an ensemble performance, thoughtfully staged on Ian MacNeil’s intimate yet magnificent split-level set.
The second half may be shorter but is substantially more emotional, swelling to the play’s almighty finish. In the heart-breaking final scene, Jean-Baptiste stands downstage with her back to Clarke and Abrefa, delivering the few lines with striking candour. It is a moment of sheer genius: Sister Margaret effectively bears her soul to the audience while steadfastly hiding the tears from her family.
Witty, reflective and touching, Norris has unpicked the rich tapestry of Baldwin’s play to achieve a colourful production that evokes all the senses. The Amen Corner must not be missed and that’s the gospel truth.
The Amen Corner is at the Olivier Theatre until 14th August 2013. For further information or to book visit the theatre’s website here.