For its latest production, the Almeida in Islington has followed the lead of the Old Vic and Southwark Playhouse in choosing to livestream direct from the theatre space itself. Initially supposed to be the centrepiece of a socially distanced season, now that this has not proved possible, the two hander Hymn has still been produced as something which can be watched from home. The upside of this is that it as nearly as possible replicates the live experience of watching people on an actual stage but on the downside the performance run is very brief. However, the level of interest means that last night’s performance was not the final one and a further outing has been announced for later today.
One of the big productions due to hit London this year was an adaptation of Life Of Pi which looks at some really big philosophical questions. The writer of this, Lolita Chakrabarti, has in the meantime given us something more intimate though no less contemplative in Hymn. The punning title refers to a paean to male bonding as two apparently disconnected men find common ground in family and the music of their youth which punctuates the action. They are half brothers of the same father, born six days apart, as it is gradually revealed that the apparently morally upright older man was living something of a double life. The brothers are quite different in nature and temperament. Gil comes across as confident, successful, up for taking a risk or two and full of charm born of a solidly middle class upbringing. Benny, by contrast, is hesitant, less willing to initially reveal himself to his newly acquired sibling and the audience. When he does, we learn of a life of emotional pain which has fired his natural caution. The two men gradually form a bond as Benny teaches Gil to box and Gil helps Benny to release his inner repressions. In a central scene which does little to advance the plot but much to develop character the two celebrate their fiftieth birthdays by reliving their youth by donning some crazy clothes and coming up with increasingly confident dance moves.
The main storyline rather borrows its tropes from the world of soap opera and, intentionally or not, it’s really not hard to see how events are going to play out. What takes the play out of the realms of the ordinary are the performances of Adrian Lester and Danny Sapani as Gil and Benny respectively. The duo seems to have strictly adhered to social distancing rules but somehow still manage to forge a connection of intimacy which transcends the physical, which is no mean feat. They move their characters in diametrically opposing diagonals with Lester going from smoothly confident to rather a wreck while Sapani travels from reticent to empowered; the pivotal crossover point is the aforementioned central celebratory section. Chakrabarti’s well structured script and Blanche McIntyre’s sensitive direction give the production a soul searching power which is possibly born from the two actors and the two creatives forming a carefully gendered balancing act.
Although the ending of the piece seemed a trifle rushed, at ninety minutes it is probably sufficiently long enough to ensure that interest is maintained. It is also a good choice to have the protagonists singing their own song extracts (Lester also plays the piano) as these are so pivotal to the characters’ experiences. However, I think this would have worked even more powerfully had they, and some of the direct monologues, been addressed directly to camera rather than an empty auditorium. Although the latter choice acknowledges the piece as an onstage drama it does rather break that essential connection between actor and audience. However, these are minor grumbles and, as has so often has been the case recently, it’s better to have this experience than none at all. And I note that at least thirty people are credited in the programme with being involved in the production – at a time of rampant disenfranchisement across the industry this can only be seen as a good thing.
I couldn’t help wondering if Chakrabarti had been watching King Lear before writing her piece. An old man who is something of a tyrant, three strong sister figures and a pair of half brothers one born into illegitimacy not to mention a background of mental health issues makes a fairly strong case to say there is a certain amount of influence at work. Or maybe that’s just the primary nature of the base story. Either way this domestic tragedy certainly has the power to engage.
Production photos by Marc Brenner
Hymn can be accessed (later today only) via the Almeida Theatre website – click here
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