The Amen Corner

It seems that you can always rely on Rufus Norris to create a piece of theatre pulsating with soulful melancholy that wears its heart most deliberately on its sleeve. Just like other recent Norris works (think Table at the Shed just outside the National Theatre, or the mesmerising Feast at the Young Vic at the beginning of the year), The Amen Corner incorporates pitch-perfect sound (in this instance through a faultless chorus) and movement to help deliver a story which has life and the human condition firmly rooted at its very core.

It is Harlem in 1953. Pastor Margaret is the shepherd of a rebellious flock, a flock unofficially led by the formidable Sister Moore, a God-fearing evangelist who “ain’t never been sweet on no man but the Lord Jesus Christ”, a woman who rejects all sin, even getting visibly worked up as she forces the words “jazz club” from her quivering lips. Margaret cares for her 18-year-old son David, no longer a boy yet not quite a man, who is attempting to balance his staunchly religious upbringing with his growing passion and appreciation for jazz music, and exploration of his own self. Collective eyes are rolled and teeth kissed when Margaret’s musician husband Luke returns to the fold, a man whose carpe diem lifestyle is at odds with the teachings of the congregation. Only with the ever-loyal Sister Odessa onside, Luke’s presence is the catalyst that Sister Moore and her band of merry followers need, for them to oust Margaret and preserve all that is sacred and holy.

James Baldwin’s writing positively bristles with inner-city grit, unmasking, in often brutally blunt terms, a community and society where respectability above all else is key, a community whose veiled desire for one-upmanship stems from the racial segregation they face in their everyday lives. This is a community who understands what it means to be oppressed, and so seek to displace that onto those moralistically beneath them in the pecking order. Being a woman “is one long fight with men”, says Margaret, and she is determined that David should not be “breaking rock and building road” like other young black Americans. Notable also is the way in which Baldwin’s characters greet each other, with David’s use of “Praise the Lord”, adopted from the rest of the congregation, making way for a more simple and atheist “So long”, towards the end of the piece.

Ian MacNeil’s set is a monolithic creation. It dominates the space with its two-tiered structure, providing a visual signifier in full sync with Baldwin’s script. Whilst Luke prowls closest to the audience, the congregation is allowed to tut disapprovingly from above, displaying the hierarchy so keenly constructed and preserved from within one community. It is disappointing however that MacNeil doesn’t make room for the orchestra, who are relegated to being seen but not heard throughout.

Whilst Cecilia Noble is memorable as Sister Moore, her characterisation sometimes flies dangerously close to becoming bemusing rather than formidable; her constant “amens” and finger clicking are certainly popular with the gallery but appear to detract from the piece’s central themes of intolerance and exclusion from within the church. It is the nobly understated performance from Sharon D Clarke as Margaret’s confidant Sister Odessa which shines through more clearly, as do Marianne Jean-Baptise and Lucian Msamati as Margaret and Luke respectively, who, whilst gruff and dismissive upon first impression, prove to be poignantly vulnerable.

With speculation mounting as to who will succeed Nicholas Hytner as Artistic Director of the National Theatre in 2015, Rufus Norris’s latest solid showing would suggest that, if he so chooses, he would be a very credible successor indeed.

The Amen Corner is on at the Olivier, National Theatre until 14 August. For more information and tickets, see the National Theatre website. Photo by Richard H Smith.