In the Blood

For such a linguistically rich play, Suzan-Lori Parks’ In the Blood – an updated take on Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, here receiving its European premiere – is at its best when exploring the limitations, inadequacy and cruel fixedness of language.

Words, sentences, labels, expressions and clichés – as wielded by virtually every character on stage, these elements of speech have the force and power of a bear trap. One from which it is impossible to escape.

The play begins with a judgement. A chorus of five anonymous African-Americans sing scornfully and damningly of a woman who, in the absence of any skills, is good for only one thing. Before they leave the stage, one scrawls the word ‘slut’ on the back wall (which represents the underpass of a railway bridge).

At this point, Hester, the homeless, proud and defiant mother of five children with five different fathers, appears. But she is illiterate and does not understand the word that is intended for her. Her eldest son, ‘Jabber’, is able to read but will not tell her what is written on the wall. He changes his mind at the end of the play, which leads to fatal consequences for him.

This obliviousness is Hester’s tragedy, and it is what propels the story onwards. As she seeks help from the various negligent fathers of her children, as well as a doctor and a social worker, it becomes clear that she must be excluded from language and society because of the threat she presents to the narratives these characters have created for themselves. She is an “animal” who must be “spayed”.

As played by Natasha Bain, Hester is a coiled spring of a woman, whose passion for her children teeters on the edge of violence from the start in its extremity and desperation. And Bain’s occasional and sudden shift from arms-crossed defensiveness to childlike demonstrativeness perfectly captures the innocence at Hester’s core, in spite of all that she has suffered. Her wide-eyed disbelief and despairing wail as ‘Chili’ (Jabber’s father) rips away from her the wedding dress he has only moments ago put her in, is heartbreaking.

The rest of the cast is no less impressive, although the doubling up of parts – each ‘child’ also plays one of the adults who has abandoned or taken advantage of Hester – is more effective in some instances than others. Particular praise should go to Eleanor Fanyinka, whose transition from uncertain middle-child Beauty to the sultry, embittered Amiga Gringa is exceptional.

Elsewhere, Frances Ashman deserves recognition for her lip-licking portrayal of ‘Welfare’. A picture of malevolence wrapped in designer clothing, her venomous delivery of stock-in-trade banalities like “I’m here to help you help yourself”, hints at the self-loathing that underlies the character’s hostility towards Hester.

In fact, it is these nuances, which speak volumes about the characters, which make the characters’ self-explanatory monologues to the audience seem somewhat superfluous. These speeches are also unusually heavy-handed for a play that delights in the disjunction between what is said and what is meant. For example, it is clear from early on that Hester has been screwed by the welfare system. Is our appreciation of the play significantly enhanced by learning that, in the case of Ashman’s character, this is literally true?

But these are minor niggles. Hester’s ultimate fate, kneeling before the letter ‘A’ perfectly written in blood, is the last of many striking images in a superb production, full of strong performances, which powerfully illuminates the issues of language and social injustice at the heart of the play.

(At the Finborough Theatre, 17 August-4 September 2010)

Reviewed for musicOMH