Among many descriptions of music in Lolita Chakrabarti’s play – showing in-person at the Almeida for the first time, following a successful run of live-streamed performances in lockdown – is a description that a character’s late father, Augustus Jones, gives of music: “silence, sound and time”. That, we are told, is all there is to it. It’s a fitting description too for Hymn, a work that builds slowly, giving its two-character cast space and time to talk, grow and change.
The character in question is Gilbert (Adrian Lester), a well-healed entrepreneur who we’re first introduced to giving Augustus’s eulogy. At the funeral, he meets Benny (Danny Sapani), who the audience has already seen embarrassing himself in a drunken bar-stool monologue. Gilbert is the ultimate insider: respected in his church, popular in his community, successful in his business. (“You could do anything in a suit like that”, Benny tells Gilbert, admiringly.) Benny – at least from where Gilbert’s standing – is the ultimate outsider: outside his community of church and kin, no respectable family, no respectable job (whatever exactly Benny’s job is). The guy’s never even met anyone here before, for goodness sake.
Yet, first with silences, then ultimately with plenty of sound and time, the two men’s worlds, predictably, inevitably begin to converge. Actually that’s not quite right – it’s not that the two worlds meet and meld with equal strength; more often that Danny’s life drifts and becomes completely enveloped into Gilbert’s orbit. There’s another metaphor for this in the play. This time it’s a deliberate one that Chakrabarti’s put there in for us as a bit of a key to unlock the play’s central theme. Danny tells Gilbert something about piano tuning forks. Apparently, when one fork is struck and gets close to another, the new fork picks up the resonance of the first. We suspect these two men’s lives are about to do the same – but do the forks synchronise, hitting some middle frequency, or is it that one come to imitate the other?
For much of the play the music they make together – both metaphorically and, oh my dear lord, literally – is as exquisite as it is joyful. Following the stuntedness and awkwardness of their first encounters, the characters’ bond quickly strengthens. They become in-time. Co-ordinated. The rhythm is sorted early when Danny teaches Gilbert to box. But whilst Gilbert’s skill in the ring increases, it is Danny that is really changing. By becoming the instructor, the one who knows the moves, he is able to warm to Gilbert, to feel comfortable around him, find a footing where they meet as equals. He begins to open up. To trust Gil. Gil might follow Benny’s steps in the gym, but it is Benny who is following Gil’s in everything else, entering Gil’s social circle, partnering in Gil’s new business.
The zenith of their relationship – and Hymn’s most memorable set-piece – comes on Danny’s 50th birthday, where the pair sing, rap and dance their way through Danny’s record collection and their shared love of soul music. These two characters are always performing, whether it’s the front they show each other, the performance of a eulogy, dressing in a new suit, the role of a friend, a son, a brother. And nowhere is that performance more explicit and enjoyable than here, in Danny’s spare room, with both the intimate, vulnerable silliness that people perform in private and, simultaneously, the exuberant force of live performers playing to us in the crowd (and the fact that at last, this Summer, they can). I’m delighted that Chakrabarti indulges in it.
(Let’s just take a second to remember that Lester is Chakrabarti’s husband, and that he also starred in her first play, Red Velvet, back in 2012. Assuming Gil was also written for him, I imagine a real glee in Chakrabarti’s choices for this scene: this is what you’ll be wearing, this is what you’ll be singing, this is what you’ll be doing. Reader, Adrian Lester can break dance.)
But performance has its dangers because it means that you can’t always see who someone really is. The same charisma of Gil’s that gets Danny to open up at the gym, to strut his stuff in his spare room, also leads Danny into a risky decision, one that leaves him feeling like a parachutist “hurtling towards the ground”. The same performance that allowed the two men the space to bond leads also to the play’s ultimate calamity, and eventual tragedy. Whilst I was watching it, this play felt resolutely literal. But somehow at the end, the feeling that I had was of having watched a fable, something archetypal, even didactic.
One of the last plays I saw at the Almeida before everything closed (and we’re actually going back a fair way here to late 2018) was Robert Icke’s adaptation of Ibsen’s The Wild Duck. In Ibsen’s play, an apparently stable family unit also suffers calamity and tragedy following the arrival of new information from an outsider. (The nature of that information that newcomers share in both plays is also rather similar.) This is a bit of a trope isn’t it? The outsider arrives, wrapped in danger, upsets the status quo. Not to be trusted. Cary Grant in Suspicion. Satan in the Garden of Eden.
Gilbert is initially suspicious of Danny’s motives. Is Danny just a chancer? Should we be suspicious too? By introducing him at his lowest, mouthing off at the bar, and leaving certain background details vague, Chakrabarti plays with this story-type. But there, Hymn and The Wild Duck diverge. Slowly, subtly – hard to say exactly when our ears first prick up – she flips it, not only by legitimising the newcomer (a reversal that is probably made nearly as often as the trope itself is used), but also by re-situating the danger: is it Danny himself who is actually in jeopardy? Is Gil all that he seems? By the middle act, we realise we’re in that other kind of story – not the one where the dodgy stranger comes to town, but the one where all is not what it seems at the big castle on the hill.
Like many a tale of hidden tensions and family secrets, Hymn is also a story about haunting. The pun in the title is easy to decipher, but initially harder to pin exactly to a specific character. Danny, perhaps? But by the end, there can be no doubt that the ‘him’ of the title is Augustus. So much of the play is about his legacy; Augustus’s choices and personality mark so much of both Gil and Danny’s characters. At one point, the men discuss those parts of their genetic inheritance that are passed down via the Y-chromosome, the fathers and sons in this family. I didn’t spot it. A friend who also saw Hymn had to tell me afterwards. Tuning forks, she reminded me, are also a Y shape.
Hymn is on at Almeida Theatre until 13th August 2021. More info and tickets here