The Royale at the Tabernacle (Bush Theatre)
Stepping into the Tabernacle is like stepping back in time. A rope-less wooden ring sits in the middle of the space as blues plays over the speakers and fight leaflets litter the floor. It is here the Bush Theatre has wisely chosen to re-stage Marco Ramirez’s The Royale following a successful run last year. And appropriately enough for a story inspired by the first ever African-American heavyweight champion, the grade-II listed building has been used for training and amateur fights since the 90s, adding an intangible extra element to a play already steeped in boxing history.
There is more than a touch of Ali to Nicholas Pinnock’s Jay Jackson – modelled after the real-life Jack Johnson – an arguably inevitability when trying to portray a charismatic prize fighter. Not that this is an impersonation of any kind; Pinnock carries himself with the confidence of a champion, yes, but also with the fragility of a man who knows there are millions of people baying for his blood because, as a black man, he dares enter the ring with a white titleholder.
Pinnock isn’t alone in producing a knockout performance. As Jackson’s trainer Wynton Jude Akuwudike delivers a speech about his own boxing career beautifully, like something straight out of an August Wilson play. Patrick Drury shows hints of Larry David as promoter Max, while Martins Imhangbe’s charms as fledgling fighter Fish. Best of all is Franc Ashman’s Nina, who haunts her brother in ring and out, a spectre of his past and a portend of his potentially violent future.
Beyond the performances it is the cerebral fight choreography of director Madani Younis that makes The Royale such a special proposition. Eschewing the need for contact Younis – prompted of course by Ramirez’s text, which gradually sheds its sports clichés in favour of an exploration of what a black champion would mean – instead captures the psychological battles of the boxing ring. In the first bout Jackson constantly freezes the action to taunt his opponent, weakening him with his words; cut to the final fight and the cocksure challenger almost is paralysed by the racial hatred his victory will release. All without one man touching another.
The entire production embodies this a cappella spirit, both literally – in a fantastic moment of punching bag blues – and metaphorically – as Jackson fields questions at a press conference while seemingly being trained by his mentor Wynton. Younis also knows when to let silence reign, producing the indelible image of a silhouetted Jackson, shrouded in smoke as he furiously pummels the racial demons that plague him.
The Royale is on at the Tabernacle from 8th to 26th November 2016, for further information or to book a visit here.