I thought carefully about how I would tell you all about this one. Every night until April 18th, Nicholas Pinnock is starring in The Royale – a remarkable and completely unique piece of theatre, in which we are possibly gaining a glimpse of a transition from career to super-stardom. We caught up with him a few days before we attended Press Night, during which he confessed to playing the main protagonist as neutrally as possible to allow us, the audience, to take what we would from the theatre.
So, this is what I got. Jay Jackson is a successful boxer, making money from that success, enjoying privileges and sating appetites which someone from his humble roots traditionally wouldn’t, and who openly shares his ambitions with anyone who will listen – anyone, being the popular and sporting press; the main ambition, being to have a title fight with the reigning world champion. The setting is 1905, the reigning heavyweight champion, Bernard Bixby, is white and Jay Jackson is a black man. Oh, and despite the story being told in six ’rounds’, sport has very little to do with the heart of the story.
As proscenium, arch theatre (traditionally-staged), the audience is placed opposite the performers. As arena theatre (theatre in-the-round), the audience is placed on at least 3 sides of the performers – all four in this case. By choosing to do this, director Madani Younis has already physically drawn you into the drama before you have taken your seat. Your sense of anticipation upon entering the ‘cigar-smoked’ atmosphere is effected by dry ice and subdued spots shining down on the empty boxing ring central to the surrounding, slowly filling audience and building chatter. There is no doubt that you are about to witness a fight!
Within ten minutes of the opening sequence, with just two fighters, a trainer and a promoter – the first bout began. The fighting is beautifully choreographed – Jay and Fish (Gershwyn Eustache Jr) opposite each other but facing the audience. They move in perfectly synchronised sequences of action and reaction, the chorus’ gasped ‘oohs’ and ‘aaahs’ doubling as the anticipating crowd and the connecting blows. Fish fights on with Jay as you realise we are being allowed into their normally locked consciousness’s. Jay steps out to swagger and fast-talk his way around the ring, taunting his adversary, baiting the onlookers, mocking the press, his words winning the challenge before a winning blow is struck. Elite sportsman that he is, he is also sizing up the talents of his opponent and deciding how he will defeat him.
It quickly becomes clear that, never mind the boxing action, the ‘main event’, is the protagonist’s internal struggle. I think therefore it works so well for the stage and for an intimate space like the 150 capacity Bush Theatre. As the audience, we rapidly ease into the rhythm of the piece. We effortlessly invest in the relationship between Jay and trainer/mentor Wynton (Clint Dyer). We approve of the admittance of the talented, but inexperienced, Fish into the ‘business’ which, I suppose, is Jay’s ‘Save the Cat‘ moment. Anyone who has observed male friends or brothers at ease with each other will recognise and warm to the brotherhood that plays out here and, since we’ve witnessed Jay bob and weave around questions about his past, it is no surprise when his older sister, Nina (Frances Ashman), suddenly arrives to present him with the reality of his ambitions; that, like the dance in the ring, the price out there in the real, intolerant world is also blood and injury, in a wider sense.
Just like Muhammad Ali decades later, an elite athlete faces a Sophie’s Choice of sorts, and each audience member will, at this point, have a stomach turning in knots, willing Jay to decide one way or the other. Because of the powerful and [personal resonance I felt with the climactic showdown sequence, I felt myself needing Jay to make the decision I supported, even though I deeply empathised with the alternative].
This play is so much more than words. Some reviewers have criticised the script’s relatively light drawing of some of the characters. But in this production, I was riveted by the movement of the theatrical players. The flawless southern accents shaping their dialogue merely enhances what their corporeal competency is already communicating – the manner and duration of Wynton and Jay’s relationship; whether Max’s colloquial speech makes him racist; the social and familial symbolism represented by Nina. In those miniscule head turns, muscular twitches and, of course, fancy footwork. In this, I believe that director Madani Younis has managed a touch of the cinematic. Both writer Marco Ramirez and Younis have also captured the Diasporan knack of substituting generations of poor access to education with a look or a gesture.
If you have ever seen Denzel Washington at his flawed hero’s best (American Gangster, Man on Fire, Glory), you will recognise ‘it’ in Pinnock. The ‘neutrality’ the actor believes he brings to the role must equate to some kind of state experienced as Zen internally, but transmitted as the utter command of a part.Pinnock’s athletic dancer’s body, newly bulked up for the role, easily conveys the 9+ years Jay has been fighting as a heavyweight. His slow-motion punches and dramatic poses are skilfully, convincingly held. Pinnock’s ‘neutrality’ gives us Jay. Charming, arrogant, powerful, stubborn, frightened, reckless; who is possibly helpless in the face of his sportsman’s head and black man’s heart.
The rest of the cast are impressive in that they can pull your attention from Pinnock – especially when delivering their monologues. Dyer is in great shape as wise, unflappable Wynton, describing the paradoxical awe of The Royale (“… one week, two weeks’ worth of wages…”) and dealing with the verbal blows Jay increasingly resorts to as the drama and pressures mount; Eustache Jr’s earnest, lovable Fish, embodied loyalty itself; Ewan Stewart’s tired, steadfast Max, always ‘other’ because of his whiteness; Ashman’s older, guarded, stingingly intense Nina, who makes a hell of an entrance (“… said they don’t normally let dark-skinned girls come back to see you. Said you developed a taste for something else…”) pulls no punches as she lays out the cost of a black man who stands, ‘fists up’.
Younis and Ramirez have made a start on the incarnation, the very heart, of what the UK Arts’ Diversity Debate is all about. Strong, Diasporan cultural archetypes in characters, completely devoid of any super-duper magical negro power. Even Max speaks to the particularly mixed branches of the African Diaspora. Latino-American Ramirez appears to be that rare talent who can really write people, judging by this and his other award-nominated work (Orange Is the New Black and Sons of Anarchy). I defy anyone to believe anything other than they wandered into a sweaty American gym and overheard a series of conversations, with the added treat of Wynton playing the hell out of a blues harmonica!
This latest role is a metaphor for issues as relevant today as they were 100 years ago, including definitions of beauty to which black people are subjected. As usual, I can maybe point out the thought-provoking aspects of stories such as these, as the writing, the casting, the direction and the presentation impress upon me culturally as a British black woman – a perspective heard little enough. I was moved to experience the affirmation of the potential power in a black man standing up.
Go see this play, because whichever ending you root for, you will be experiencing the dramatisation of a piece of real history – Jack Johnson, on whom Jay Johnson is based – was a massive inspiration to Muhammad Ali and his whole boxing style, persona.
The Royale at The Bush Theatre ran in 2015