I missed this much-acclaimed production of The Royale when it ran at Bush Theatre last year so I was thrilled when I heard it was returning to London, at The Tabernacle. And of course, it is superb. This is a truly stellar production – innovative, brilliant and searingly powerful. Everything about this show marks it out as a must-see, from the playwriting from Marco Ramirez to the performances, from the impressive direction from Madani Younis to the clever use of movement.
But it is heart-breaking.
Like most of us, I am not blind to the issues of race and racism in the United States. America is a country built on racism, after all. But in this new Trump era, the relevance of this play cuts like a knife.
Just as it should.
In the centre of the boxing ring that greets us at the start of the play is Jay Jackson (Nicholas Pinnock). One hell of a man and one hell of an athlete. “Toes like Jack Nimble, fists like John Henry,” Jackson is the Negro Heavyweight Champion. Blacks-only in this half of the sport. For this is the United States in 1905, and boxing is as segregated as the country itself.
But Jackson is no ordinary boxer; his brilliance is as awesome as his ego. He cuts through his black challengers like a knife through butter – Madani Younis bringing the tricky play directions to life with some superbly choregraphed movement that sees the characters circle each other in the boxing ring, no punch ever actually being thrown, but bodies convulsing nevertheless with every barbed word and metaphorical blow to the solar plexus.
There’s a certain Ali swagger to Jackson here, but Pinnock smartly plays him with a lot more angst going on under the surface. For Jay knows that segregation is denying him what is rightfully his – fair compensation for his talents, and respect and acknowledgment as the greatest boxer in the United States.
Enter into the ring Jackson’s canny promoter, Max (Patrick Drury), with a hell of a proposition… A unification bout with Bixby, the Heavyweight Champion of the World. A white man.
Black versus White. Blow for blow.
It’s never been done before and there’s the very real likelihood that Jackson would win. What a chance! What an opportunity! But for all the excitement, the shadow of racism gets ever darker. For White supremacy does not go quietly into the night. What Jackson is taking on is just not a White opponent, but the very structures of oppression themselves.
And White men do not respond well to their power being challenged.
And of all of this is given life through Jay’s difficult relationship with his sister, Nina (Franc Ashman – who is utterly compelling btw. Couldn’t take my eyes off her). It is through her, and through the tricky circles Jay and Nina dance around each other, that we begin to understand who Jay is, what made him, where he came from – and the very real danger his success will bring for the family and community he left behind.
Please go see this. The price the Black community must pay for every chip they take out of the colossal wall of racism that is built around them remains frighteningly high, and The Royale is a piece of drama on a true story that perfectly punches this home.
Flawless. Heart-breaking and flawless.
The Tabernacle, London, to November 26, 2016
Tickets from £12.50.
All production images by Helen Murray.