Noughts & Crosses - The Bristol Old Vic

Noughts & Crosses - The Bristol Old Vic

‘All was lost, But that the heavens fought’ Act V, Scene III, Cymbeline

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a lover of a certain series of books will be in want of a theatre adaptation that will supersede, if not equal their great expectations. Noughts & Crosses, based on Malorie Blackman’s novel of the same title, didn’t quite reach the level which, I am sure, generations of Blackman-devotees will have expected. The original text is daring, deeply original and, I think, should be mandatory reading for students in secondary school. Blackman imagines a world tipped upside down, where race relations have been inverted: white people have been suppressed by black people for hundreds of years. A black girl Sephy, and a white boy Callum, inevitably fall in love, and both families are hurt by the crossfire. All of the issues that we are disappointingly all too familiar with - xenophobia, racism, discrimination – resurface, but are charged with a different current. The text should be unnecessary - in the sense that the persecution the white characters undergo should not be a catalyst to recognise the racism that still persists today. That should be evident. In this way, Noughts & Crosses should not be so relevant as it is today. Which is why it is disappointing that the reinvention of this fearless text seems so redundant.

I won’t stop banging on about certain tropes of theatre which seem overdone. Having characters. Speak different parts. Of the same sentence. Ending with a rhetorical question is annoying. Right? Especially when we combine this with physical theatre. The endless shifting of tables into different orders so that they fall under the foot of the person who is walking upon them, just in time so that they don’t break an ankle, is so 2014. Invest in a longer dinner table, or lose the contrived metaphor. Blackman’s text is immersive, and I can imagine for a younger audience that this could have seemed striking; original even. However it all felt a bit showy and distracting. Particularly galling was the interpretative dance sex-scene, which was met with laughter from the school group seated in front, and was thus so painful my neck ached from how far down I shrank into my seat. Credit should be given to Heather Agyepong (Sephy) and Billy Harris (Callum) for maintaining composure after enduring this piece of direction from Esther Richardson, which, considering the play’s target audience of young teenagers, hadn’t really been thought through.  

Relieving us of lots of surprisingly poor acting from Pilot Theatre Company, was Simon Kenny with his striking set design. Upon entry into the theatre, the staging was powerful: a red x and o fused on top of one another glared at the audience. Representative of desire for a society of equals - white people (the noughts) combined with black people (the crosses) – this was symbolically resonant, if very deliberate. Upon explaining his decisions for his set – which was darkly reminiscent of The Handmaid’s Tale in palette – Kenny stated that he wanted ‘to create a world that we absolutely recognised and understand, but somehow isn’t quite what we expect’. I think this is true for my response to the play as a whole. Having read the series, Richardson created a world I recognised in tones, themes, and urgency, but presented it in such a way that I expect it will not transfix audiences like the original text did for so many.

***

Three stars

Esther Bancroft, Theatre Editor