“Don’t try and go through life worrying about if somebody like you or not.”
The role of the anti-hero is a curious one – featuring a protagonist who sours and curdles as the play progresses is a bold move, especially when presented with such a lack of sentimentality as in Paulette Randall’s production of August Wilson’s Fences. There’s no doubting the horrendous circumstances that black people found themselves in even after the abolition of slavery, in a world that had emancipated them yet still considered them way less than equal. This is given visceral life in the lead character of Troy Maxson, whose own promising baseball career was stymied by the enduring racism he faced and an inopportune trip to prison and so as life has progressed and a family built up around him, he has ended up providing for them by becoming a garbage collector.
But Troy is a hugely proud man and the scars of his experience linger on perniciously, affecting the lives of all of those around him even as the opportunities for his sons become greater than anything he was ever granted. Lyons is a great musician but his father refuses to go and see him but the younger Cory bears the brunt of his father’s frustrations as his talent for American football puts him in line for a scholarship, a chance Troy decides to sabotage. Even his marriage to the ever-faithful Rose comes under threat in his search for the satisfaction that constantly eludes him.
He’s a hugely flawed human being and Lenny Henry starts off well at suggesting the bluff bonhomie of a family man who loves a drink and a son, but as the layers peel back to reveal the deeply troubled character below, I found him less convincing. He nails the impotent rage – humiliating Cody whenever he can and frequently roaring to God – but never really hit the notes of deep tragedy that I craved. The fences of the title are designed to protect his property, but it is only a property he could afford by purloining his brother’s war disability pay-off, and also to cordon off his family, the people whom he beats and cheats on. Henry struggles to convey the damage of his early years in a way that engaged me, his lifeless hands symptomatic of the lack of complexity necessary to make an anti-hero worth watching.
There is excellent work around him though – Colin McFarlane’s buddy Jim, Peter Bankolé and Ashley Zhangazha are both excellent as his sons and if I wasn’t necessarily sure about the breathy choices of Tanya Moodie as Rose, her presence radiated from the stage. And the relationships they all create in the backyard of their home are powerfully drawn. But there’s no doubting that the play becomes hard work as it winds towards the end of its two and three-quarter hours – Wilson’s writing lacks subtlety throughout, the sporting metaphors particularly overplayed, but the final scene hammers things home unnecessarily whilst testing the patience. A bold piece of programming, especially for the risk-averse West End, even if not my particular cup of tea in the end.