Sometimes being lost is part of the journey and when you accept it and settle in for the ride, its more enjoyable at that. Ladyboy Herald advices the audience of this throughout the Globe’s new musical, The Lightning Child, and it’s wise to heed his advice. Ché Walker, writer of this adaptation of the Bacchae, takes us on a winding journey filled with bright colours, glittery streamers and gold booty shorts.
We open with Neil Armstrong, his wife, and the moon: the stage creates a vast emptiness that evokes the distance between husband and wife, mankind and the gods. Neil gets a chance to see something “mankind is not ready for”: Ladyboy Herald, an immortal, timeless messenger in teal dreads and sparkling platform shoes. Ladyboy tells the tragic tale of King Pentheus of Thebes and his mother Agave. Interspersed throughout are small plays about the lives of a pair of drug addicts who find a dog, a violin aficionado and her violently obsessed new roommate, South African runner, Caster Semenya, and the reunion of Billy Holiday and Lester Young. The vastness of the moon is stripped away to reveal a brightly coloured stage, reminiscent of a 1970s variety show. The mood is officially set: energetic, fun, and sometimes absolutely confounding.
The music, by Arthur Darvill, has varying degrees of success, much like some of the performances. When the music tries to be coy it comes across fake, as does the forced mob laughter of the women following Dionysus. However, when the actors are chanting, building the tension brought about by the drums and the animalistic movement, the music ensnares the audience.
Despite slight overacting by Mrs. Armstrong and Agave, the cast overall is superb. Jonathan Chambers, as the effeminate and snarky herald shines (literally and figuratively) despite having to exposit constantly. Clifford Samuel (Pentheus) manages to bring great humor and even sympathy to the role of an oppressor. Denying music and the female influence, Pentheus rages against women’s attempts to trap a man with food and contends, while forcing an audience member to molest him, that a 6 pack is the truest sign of freedom.
Weaved throughout all the plays and storylines is the idea of losing oneself. One can lose himself by denying a side of himself as well as by not knowing his limits. Even Dionysus, who walks the line between genders, is in denial: when Ladyboy dares to bring up his deceased friend, a beautiful young boy, Dionysus vehemently denies being sexually involved with him.
An aspect that I take issue with is the portrayal of women. While cross – gender and homosexuality is, rightfully, seen as an expression and acceptance of one’s true self, women are depicted as possessive and self-involved or needing a man to lead them. The only sympathetic portraits of women come a little too late. In Billy Holiday and Caster Semenya we have talented and strong women, who are human not borderline insane.
With all these storylines and questions about self, denial, and art, the production sometimes feels too jammed packed and that nothing is resolved. But as Teiresias, the blind prophet, claims, “peace grows, not wisdom, but peace”. It doesn’t feel like the point quite is to have an answer to these questions, but just acceptance of the questions themselves. On a whole, the production is a little unpolished – slightly out of sync singing and dancing, a few stumbles over lines. However, even if it doesn’t always work or make sense it is a blast. The entire audience is engaged – catcalling, aww-ing, cheering. So follow Ladyboy’s advice and enjoy the ride.
- By Ché Walker and Arthur Darvill
- Directed by Matthew Dunster
- Produced by Tom Bird
- Cast includes: Jonathan Chambers, Tommy Coleman, Moyo Akandé
- Shakespeare's Globe Theatre
- Until 14th October 2013
- Review by Becca Kaplan
- 18th September 2013