The Brothers Size at the Young Vic
In the Young Vic’s gorgeous reprise of The Brothers Size, Bijan Sheibani treats Tarell Alvin McCraney’s fragile tale of fraternal love with the weight and ritual of ancient myth.
Oshoosi (Jonathan Ajayi) is just out of prison, aimlessly living with his brother Ogun (Sope Dirisu), wiling away his days with former inmate Elegba (Anthony Welsh). There’s some narrative-moving dramatics towards the end of the play involving drugs and unrequited love, but that’s about it for plot. That’s because The Brothers Size isn’t really about what happens when you leave prison, but how it feels – how it feels to be a black man marked with that stigma; how it feels to have a loved one go to jail; and how it feels to try and maintain a relationship formed in closed walls once you’re on the outside.
One of the most distinct aspects of McCraney’s writing is the way he incorporates language that would normally be found as stage direction into the spoken text. It often produces scenes of startling beauty and emotional immediacy, but can hold the audience at arm’s length, preventing a more affecting silence. Still, it gives McCraney’s prose poetry a peculiar, magnetic rhythm, something Sheibani seeks to replicate not only with the use of throbbing live percussion but constant physical movement. The actors are cast into a chalk circle dusted with rust-red dirt, which creates the sense of a hard sun beating down on cracked earth; of churning, boiling frustration; of constant, inescapable pressure.
Given the delicacy of what McCraney and Sheibani are doing, it sometimes feels like Ajayi’s lead performance is going to throw the whole thing out of whack. It can be broad in a way that’s initially jarring, like a stand-up has suddenly stepped on stage. Yet the tensions between Ajayi and the production end up being among its most compelling moments. Oshoosi is constantly over-compensating, projecting the goofy, fun-loving glow his brother was afraid he’d lose in prison, all the while struggling against his past mistakes and the box they’ve placed him in. There’s a lot of fury and confusion lurking underneath the laughter, and Ajayi allows both to sit uncomfortably together.
Like the novelist Jesmyn Ward, who’s work shares a lot with The Brothers Size, McCraney is a fantastic writer of siblings, and the play’s two best scenes reflect the range of feeling provoked by such a relationship. In the first, Ogun rages at Oshoosi, a perfectly delivered near-monologue by Dirisu that’s fuelled by the burden that accompanies the deep sense of duty he feels towards his brother. The second is a heart-stopping, joyous rendition of Otis Redding’s Try a Little Tenderness, a too-rare display of physical and emotional comfort between two men that capture’s the brothers’ new-found status quo in all its complexity.
Photo: Marc Brenner
The Brothers Size is at the Young Vic from 19th January until 14th February 2018. For further information or to book visit the theatre’s website here.