Reviews West End & Central Published 27 January 2020

Review: Fairview at Young Vic

As Fairview’s UK run ends, Naomi Obeng charts her conflicting reactions to Jackie Sibblies Drury’s play. [contains spoilers]

Naomi Obeng

‘Fairview’ at Young Vic. Set: Tom Scutt. Lighting: Jessica Hung Han Yun. Photo: Marc Brenner

I’ve kind of been dreading this being published?

Fairview is play that really should not be spoiled. And I do not want to be the one to spoil it.

But.

I couldn’t review it without being able to talk freely about its entirety.

Beating around the earth-shattering parts that other reviewers have diligently avoided felt pointless and basically impossible, to me.

They’re the parts that we should talk to each other about, and continue to talk to each other about.

The After

i think this is the best  most successful  play i’ve seen this year  ever

i didn’t even like it that much

it was phenomenal

i didn’t have to ‘like it’ (i.e for it to be my ‘taste’) to have felt it shock through my veins  that’s the point

my brow was clenched the entire time

i write next to a white man who might be peering over my shoulder on the train and i’m finding it so hard to type in case, just in case. which is ridiculous. this is my space. let me be honest. let me be vulnerable. let me figure my thoughts out without having to Check Myself.

i’ve seen countless plays try to incubate this feeling disruption. this is the first that achieved it. the audacity necessity. we will not leave this room until white people literally step up. up onto that stage. into that light. to see how it feels to be watched/observed/commented on/dismissed/stereotyped/boxed in/reduced/idealised/simplified/pitied/patronised  i mean not really, they’re just standing on a stage, which is Not the hard work or how it feels and i hope nobody comes away feeling great for going up some stairs, apart from the first lady to stand up. maybe? no. but it takes a while for the first to step up. thrilling? absolutely totally utterly excruciating

resisting feeling like i need to congratulate the white people for stepping up. what the actual fuck. where does it come from? this ‘well done you’?

Fairview turns theatre inside out, splits its straining guts, and then walks out the door.

i wanna clap the actors but they’ve gone

they don’t want to be clapped

conventions have crumbled like soot in the hand

everyone’s so bloody English about all of this horror

i don’t know what to do with the feeling of usurping my seat –the being both white and black but still black but still – the not being African-American.

i don’t know what to do with the feeling of usurping my seat – the being both black and white but still black but still – the not being African-American.

The Play

Music announces the opening of a blue curtain, which announces the opening of the play. A scent of destabilising subversion pervades.

Beverly feels too switched on, peeling her carrots and worrying about the perfection of this birthday meal for her mother and family. Her home is a pastel and cream showroom devoid of identity. The actors perfect a performance that feels like performance, each playing their piece 100% with quick-witted quips. I can’t quite be there with them. I know something’s up.

Can you pull out just a tongue without bringing the oesophagus and the stomach and the entrails that are attached? This production knows that severing discourse on race and parcelling bits out onto a stage is inadequate. Its inherent brilliance is that it never attempts to stop somewhere, it keeps pulling and pulling until the end, and then it’s still not over, because it never is. It’s an astonishingly detailed and formally confronting dissection of race and white gaze in society.

The writing captures entire worlds of harm and inequity in single phrases. We hear a French woman join the conversation. She rolls herself up in a blanket of her irrevocable truths: a) I’m not racist and therefore b) Nothing I say can be racist. It cuts with the worldview of a whole national policy. (The French government sees itself as ‘colourblind’ and doesn’t collect any data on the race or ethnicity of citizens. The concept of race isn’t inscribed in law. Unsurprisingly, hate crimes and racial discrimination continue.) Nobody changes her mind.

The third act. If I’ve been uncomfortable and tense until now, at this point I honestly just want to leave. Previously disembodied voices invade the domestic scene. These characters feel too loud, even when they’re quiet. They feel ten feet tall. They’re abrasive and, somehow, grotesquely real. They grab hold of the scene and twist, wringing reality dry to enact their racist fantasies. How come I don’t feel safe? This is theatre and this isn’t real.

Sure feels real though. This is exactly what it feels like, to be in a space where you’re implicitly asked not to make a sound, not to speak, to watch and to witness degradation, regardless of what pain it causes you. I don’t want to be an audience member anymore, I just want to shut down this whole chaotic mess. I wonder how the many and various white people are feeling. Not out of empathy. More just because if they don’t get it now then I don’t think they ever will.

Towards the end, Keisha, Beverly’s softly sensitive and ambitious daughter played by Donna Banya, lifts us out of unstructured chaos. But the potential of queer love between Keisha and her friend Erica is ripped away. Keisha is funnelled by the white usurpers’ expectations into a young black woman stereotype. A heartbreaking denial of her complexity and agency, which, in retrospect, felt inevitable.

But that’s just me describing things.

This isn’t the play.

Jackie Sibblies Drury’s writing and Nadia Latif’s direction pull together in sync. It’s all making space for the After. It’s the After that still stings my body. It’s the After that really matters.

 

The Before

i’ve seen a lot of plays that tackle racism and been frustrated by a white audience’s lack of implication. their ‘oh well now i just feel bad’, the ‘but i didn’t do anything’.

i know this is a play about America and i hope that it doesn’t absolve a British white audience from self-scrutiny.

i don’t read any writing about Fairview. i see thoughts about the fact that the people who’d written the reviews should not have been white.

i know i’ve read a lot of reviews by white writers of plays about black characters.

i don’t remember ever thinking ‘wow, I’m really glad I got to read a white person’s take on this.’

but listen, if any of you for a second think this is or can be ‘the black take’ on this play then get out

and consider the play again

and again

Fairview was on at Young Vic until January 23rd 2020. The production requested that critics avoid discussing the third and fourth acts in detail; we feel it’s important to talk about what happened in order to critique the play, but delayed publishing this response until the run’s end to honour that request. 

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Naomi Obeng

Naomi Obeng is an East Midlands based writer and arts journalist.

Review: Fairview at Young Vic Show Info


Directed by Nadia Latif

Written by Jackie Sibblies Drury

Cast includes Naana Agyei-Ampadu, Donna Banya, David Dawson, Julie Dray, Nicola Hughes, Matthew Needham, Esther Smith, Rhashan Stone

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