Representation of BAME actors is a hot topic in theatre right now. New plays such as Admissions are questioning the use of quotas for admissions of BAME students at drama schools and universities, just as positive discrimination is becoming widely used. So this reviewer found it extremely surprising how unusual it is to see a cast with just four black actors. The fact that it is so unusual shows just how important it is to keep encouraging representation of black artists in general. Noughts and Crosses is a story set in a dystopian universe in which the society of crosses, who are black-skinned, have supremacy and colonial power over the society of noughts, who are white-skinned. The two races live in segregation and there is capital punishment for many noughts. As such, it requires a cast of half black actors and half white actors.
For a story intended to counter racism, this play has some strange ideas. Whilst the story is complex, the black crosses are, to a large extent, the ‘baddies’. The crosses champion segregation and oppression and their leaders are racist and power-hungry. Meanwhile the white noughts are the suffering underdogs, who need liberation from their oppressors. In a book, this may be allegorical, but on stage, this means that the white actors’ roles are, on the whole, more relatable and more well-rounded because the underdogs are the ones to be empathised with. Ironically, Callum (Billy Harris), the fit white male, is the biggest underdog, as the suffering, tragic hero.
This reflects the poor quality of the script. The story has a fairytale-like quality, without the depth and magic of a fairytale. It is removed from reality, but feels too mundane to be make-believe and too melodramatic to be naturalistic. It is largely rooted in extremes and cliched statements, and the loud, tasteless set design is overbearing in the space. The performance is extremely intense and there is little comic relief, the single instance being when Sephy (Heather Agyepong) makes jokes on the phone, a pin-prick moment that brings the audience a much-needed smile.
Unfortunately, the direction and performances do not help the writing. The performers over-act and the play is miserable without being affecting. It often sounds as though the actors are reciting the script; at times they enunciate words to the extent that the speech sounds fake. There are a lot of habitual but unconvincing gestures to try to convey feeling, and watching the play I feel little empathy for the characters, even though the actors put a lot of energy and meaning into each line. It feels as though this is a group of strong actors who are simply underprepared. The one exception to this is Lisa Howard as Meggie, who gives a very touching performance. Her character has a lot of vulnerability and I sympathise and connect with her.
Still, in broad terms, this production of Noughts and Crosses is too intense and overdone.
Noughts and Crosses is playing until 6 April. For more information and tickets, visit the York Theatre Royal website.