King Hedley II at Theatre Royal Stratford East
For whatever reason, London’s theatres have managed to put on five Arthur Miller revivals this year in as many months. If the city’s artistic directors were feeling just a smidge bolder, they could have used a few of those slots for August Wilson, a master with the capacity to beat Miller at his own game. Nadia Fall’s staging of King Hedley II – the 1980s-set chapter in the writer’s ten-play Pittsburgh Cycle – at the Theatre Royal Stratford East proves as much, arguably surpassing the current productions of All My Sons and Death of a Salesman.
Out of prison and with wife pregnant, King (Aaron Pierre) is trying to get himself together. But in Reagan-era America, opportunities for black men and women are purposefully limited. (It is telling that Peter McKintosh’s old wooden houses and dusty yards, a street stretching off into the dark, could easily be used for the 1950s-set Fences.) King has to make money where he can, slinging stolen refrigerators and hustling in an environment where a side glance can incite violence. Things are strained with his mother Ruby (Martina Laird) – only recently returned to his life – and made more complicated by the reintroduction of the slippery Elmore (Lenny Henry).
Plastered on the production’s posters, Henry is actually playing a supporting role. He enters like a walking wink, sliding on stage in a glorious white suit, his flirting and joking only just masking a quick temper. He has a wonderful chemistry with Laird, whose Ruby is so characterful and convincing one would believe her lines were ad libbed.
King operates on a system of honour that has no regard for life, be it his own or others. Reduced to lethal squabbles over “little things”. Like the seeds he so fiercely protects, he has been expected to grow in the harshest soil, leaving him with his name and little else. And even if that isn’t true – he has a mother so keen to love him, a best friend who’ll always back him, an endlessly patient wife and a child on the way – he has been psychologically conditioned to pen himself in, picking up the worst lessons about masculinity on the way.
It’s a role that rivals any Loman or Proctor, and one that Pierre crushes, cementing himself as one of British theatre’s brightest lights (see him while you can; he is about to get way more exposure when he stars in Amazon’s adaptation of The Underground Railroad). He is mesmerising and menacing, with a wide grin that can just as quickly turn into a stony glare. Battling with guilt and grief, loss and lostness, he seems like he is going to burst out of his skin. It’s that classic tale of a man desperate to be somebody, but with no idea how.
Photo: The Other Richard
King Hedley II is at Theatre Royal Stratford East from 17th May until 15th June 2019. For further information or to book visit the theatre’s website here.
Watch the trailer for King Hedley II here: