Barber Shop Chronicles at the National Theatre
Inua Ellams’s Barber Shop Chronicles, directed by Bijan Sheibani, is a thought-provoking piece about African ethos from the point of view of men in the common community setting of a barber shop. Taking place in South London, Johannesburg, Lagos, Accra, Harare and Kampala, conversational scenes are interwoven to produce an intriguing mosaic of cultural revelations.
This dynamic show begins as the audience enters the auditorium with a convivial group chatting on stage, cool music playing and sports on TV, lending a Brechtian realism and interactive theatrical style of breaking the fourth wall between performer and viewer.
As is apparently a focus in the arts of late, the theme of masculinity prevails in this work: What is it to be a man in our society and how is it defined by one’s culture as well as in relation to other cultures? In the café-like environment of the barber shop – reminding of a British pub, an American Cheers-type locale or a sports bar – much truth is communicated through banter and the dialogue is brilliantly written.
Exploring various incarnations of manliness, the characters are heroic, crooked, philosophical or exhibitionist Romeos and Lotharios. In South London the son of an imprisoned shop owner verbally rages against his dad’s business rival. In South Africa another is angry with his absent father and the ravages of apartheid. Themes of fatherly neglect and racial injustice are particularly strong, highlighting perhaps the two most prominent sources of pain for the African community.
Combining comedy and tragedy, joviality and fury, the remarkable writing flows seamlessly to create a cohesive picture of the black male experience. With excellent acting by all, Fisayo Akinade is particularly engaging as Samuel, whose sparring relationship with Emmanuel – impressively portrayed by Cyril Nri – is a foundation for the play. Hammed Animashaun is terrific as a swaggering, grandstanding Nigerian Casanova, and Patrice Naiambana is compelling as an old timer still angry that Mandela did not do more to seek retribution for apartheid. Aline David’s choreography results in ebullient, lively dance sequences that add to the overall aura of magnetic energy.
Entertaining and enlightening, Barber Shop Chronicles is a poignant, thoughtful, painful yet uplifting and joyful work that should be seen.
Photo: Marc Brenner
Barber Shop Chronicles is at the National Theatre from 21st November 2017 until 9th January 2018, for further information or to book visit the National Theatre website here.