Trapped inside an obscured glass box, people drift eerily in and out of view as they approach and retreat. We see the body – young man, old woman – but not the person, the individual. A low primorial hum of white noise creates the feel of a thriller movie set a dystopian future. This is a strange, dangerous world: not one cosy world of well-made plays in Sloane Square.
The box rises, and the cast spills out like a mass birth to form tableaux. Bathed in beautiful lighting on a stark stage wearing muted earth tones, the cast paint a picture; there are shades of a Renaissance painting – maybe a biblical scene. They stand and sit around and on the kind of spartan chairs beloved of community and civic buildings. It’s a public meeting, or a therapy group, or neither, or both – debbie tucker green won’t allow us to be distracted by detail because her ambition for ear for eye is so much bigger than that. She’s here you show us how institutional racism operates. And more than show, too: she achieves the theatrical equivalent of stapling the viewer’s eyes open and sellotaping them to the stage.
And then they talk, and talk, and talk. Unnamed characters alone or in pairs skirt around a state of affairs. These people exist only in relation to each other and their societal roles – mother and son; old woman, young woman – as they hold lyrically forth, searching, disagreeing, never pinning down an answer as to how they have been, who they can be and how they should be.
What they describe is Orwellian. Every move is the wrong one, each word spoken a threat to body and mind. A mother lambasts her son’s attempts to master his body language because no matter what he does it will be perceived as a threat; two young women can’t agree on how to protest – stay safe at the back of a march or go direct. All the time they circle their subject, slowly painting a verbal picture of their condition: this is no dystopian future or embarrassing relic from an unjust past – this is the reality for black people in America today.
The dialogue drips into the ear with its beautiful rhythm and is all the more affecting to hear when its subject is how people are silenced or erased. All the while the prison cell-like box hangs above them as a threat – a real consequence to a misspoken word.
debbie tucker green’s genius lies in how she excavates the functioning of power. In trying to find a way to be heard, the characters turn inward as well as outward. They too police each other’s words and try to impose their own beliefs. Several scenes play out again with different characters in different power relationships to each other to reinforce that words are not equal – the mouths they come out of matters.
ear for eye doesn’t let anyone off the hook. There’s no room to get smugly superior about your own wokeness. Through parts two and three – a young black woman trying to air her opinion on a high school massacre to an older white man in authority, and a video rendition of British slave codes – debbie tucker green pulls the wool from our eyes, cleverly and painfully tracing the history back to our shores. She shows us the dynamics of oppression in action, accusing no one and everyone: we’re all part of the system.
This vast and visceral excoriation of institutionalised racism is as engrossing as it is discomfiting. Both writing and directing with extreme precision, debbie tucker green has crafted a piercingly effective and affecting event that feels almost like a piece of durational performance art. Clocking in at two-and-bit hours with no interval, it’s exhausting, compelling and transformative. Calling it ‘a play’ feels churlish. ear for eye is a thing you experience with your eyes, ears and body.
ear for eye is on at Royal Court until 24th November. More info here: https://royalcourttheatre.com/whats-on/ear-for-eye/