The Royale/Bush Theatre
It is often proof of a show’s strength that only after it ends is one free from its power to unpick its machinations. Marco Ramizez’s Royale is one such play. Loosely based on the life of Jack Johnson and his 1910 fight against the retired undefeated champion James J. Jefferies, the play’s main concern is the lead up to the “fight of the century” whose outcome stoked racial tensions, incited riots and pandemonium in America. Fertile material then for a play if there ever is one.
Here called Jay Johnson and played by Nicolas Pinnock. His promoter played by Ewan Steward tells him of the near impossibility of luring “the great white hope” Bixby out of retirement. Bixby agrees to the fight but demands 90% of the takings which Johnson accepts astounding his promoter. His sister Nina (Frances Ashman) then visits him while he’s in training and goes as far as suggesting he loses the fight afraid of the violence that would be meted out on black people if he wins. Already, her son who Johnson hasn’t seen in a long time is getting into fights in school for simply claiming him as his uncle.
The stakes could not be higher and it is a testament to the writing and Madani Younis’s direction that even when familiar with the true story, the raised tension is palpable enough to feel real. One gets conflicting feelings rooting for Johnson but fearful of the suffering and loss of black lives that will follow.
The actual fights are cleverly choreographed. Instead of the accurate goriness common in films about boxing, Younis has opted for artful depiction. The boxers often have their backs to each other bouncing with a fluid footwork. The impacts of punches are reproduced by a chorus of shouts, foot stamps and claps.
There are remarkable support performances from Johnson’s coach Wynton (Clint Dyer) who has the delicate job of maintaining Johnson’s focus but preventing over-confidence and Gershwyn Eustache Jnr as the promising boxer who Johnson has difficulty beating in the opening scene (round one) and who he later employs as a sparring partner.
Of his multiple roles in the play, Ewan Steward’s turn as promoter is a balanced portrayal of a friend and sympathiser, confident in his client’s prospects of beating any opponent but plagued by his awareness of the fight’s magnitude. Frances Ashman’s turn as the sister Nina who is more concerned about her brother’s safety is played with an emotional charge that would be sorely missed if only the pride, fear and ego of the male characters were interrogated. In a less accomplished play, this would be too reductive a role for a woman but is here slightly elevated to the point of being crucial.
Nicholas Pinnock is every inch the champion boxer having clearly whipped himself into an envious physique. His Johnson has a ton of grace perfectly communicating Johnson’s self-belief which even when shaken never deteriorates into crippling doubt. With such sharp writing, elegant direction and a very impressive cast all making for a brilliant production, the bar has been set pretty high and every other play I see this year has a lot to live up to.
The Royale is at the Bush Theatre until 18th April 2015
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Sabo Kpade’s stories have been published in Verdad, Glasschord, The Writer’s Room, Sable and Gertrude Press. His play Have Mercy On Liverpool Street was staged by Talawa Theatre Company. He is currently at work on his first novel Anyone’s Ghost. Follow him on twitter @GeekStreetuk