King Hedley II is a story of Shakespearean magnitude and parallels.

Written by revered American playwright, August Wilson, King Hedley II is the ninth in his ten-part series, The Pittsburgh Cycle, which examines African American life in the United States during the twentieth century, it tells the story of an ex-con in Pittsburgh trying to rebuild his life after spending seven years in jail for killing the man who slashed and scarred his face.

For a three hour play, you never feel the time go by. In fact, when there is a scene change or interval, I felt eager to get more of the story. Wilson’s incredible and honest writing is elevated to levels beyond by the fierce characterisation and talent of the actors on the stage.

Aaron Pierre (Krypton) in the titular role is driven by a deep innate desire to start his life over in every way possible. From planting seeds in his mother’s backyard that he is obsessed to see grow, to bullishly insisting his girlfriend, Tonya, (played superbly and with extreme gravitas by Cherelle Skeete) goes through with her newly found out about pregnancy even though she logically and intelligently reasons with him that an abortion would be better because what world would the child be born into? Pierre roars and flows through this role with a level of perfection that isn’t subtle, but in fairness, doesn’t have to be.

To balance that, Sir Lenny Henry as smooth-talking hustler ‘Elmore‘, brings all the subtlety one could need or miss. His portrayal especially gives me a parallel of this story to Hamlet, where he is the King Claudius to Aaron’s Hamlet, each vying for control over their own lives in an almost futile sense, seeing as they, both ex-convicts, can only get so far in 1980s America as black men.

No one on stage let the ball drop at all, however, personally, Martina Laird as ‘Ruby‘ was sensational and untouchable in her performance. As the loving mother and starlet has-been, she exuded a heart-breaking juxtaposition of what life was meant to be, could have been and sadly became, that really embodied the declining state of the working black person, the glittering promise and the sobering reality.

The beauty of King Hedley II lies in its simplicity. It is a story about the human condition and so, director Nadia Fall was right not to take away too much from that with extra effects and scene change extravaganza. She kept the story true and honest to its core and so kept us hooked entirely.

It’s almost impossible to say more save to praise the authenticity of every element of this production from lighting to set and costume design (big-up Peter McKintosh). Nothing detracted from the truth of the time period or story. Everything only served to enhance its ability to leap off the page of Wilson’s text, like a painting done using oils instead of powders.

King Hedley II Review by Adele Oni


King Hedley II runs at the Theatre Royal Stratford East until Saturday the 15th June. Find out more and book your tickets here.