Tarell Alvin McCraney scored a critical success with his debut at the Young Vic last year, The Brothers Size, which is now simultaneously revived in the studio while a bigger, altogether bolder production of that play’s prequel, In The Red And Brown Water, consumes the main stage.
That stage is unrecognisable. Removed altogether, the space has been flooded with water, which initially lies so still that it could be a sheet of glass. Placed upon it is a piano, a bongo drum and a crate. A giant fan revolves slowly over the lagoon and the sound of crickets helps to conjure the sticky atmosphere of a rural southern state of America.
The audience sits in the round, both at the level of the water and high above the action, which takes place entirely on this vast lagoon, the actors splashing through it as though it wasn’t there at all.
McCraney’s play centres on a young girl, Oya (Ony Uhiara), a talented runner who is spotted by a talent scout who offers her the chance to train at his college, away from the small town she lives in with her mother. Deciding, reluctantly, to care for her dying mother and forfeit the college place, Oya doesn’t get her chance again and is left to a small town life in which she is buffeted by the demands of two men.
Though McCraney’s story initially focuses on the tragedy of Oya’s unused talent, later he implies that the real regret of Oya’s life is that she cannot get pregnant, something she seems to desire more than running – or perhaps, as a substitute. Of the two men in her life, Javone Prince’s stuttering, devoted Ogun Size – whose later story is told in The Brothers Size – cannot make her happy as long as Oya still carries an all-consuming torch for her first love, the swaggering womaniser Shango (Ashley Walters).
Told in McCraney’s unique style, with stage directions part-narrated by the characters, this is a fiercely modern production full of quick dialogue, wit and vigour. But the story it tells is an age-old one of lost opportunities and unrequited love, like a modern retelling of an oft-recited myth; in fact McCraney’s work is inspired by the West African Yoruba myths which are linked to voodoo. Jean Kalman’s lighting, reflected off the rippling water, produces a haunting, spiritual atmosphere in places, added to by soulful music from Abram Wilson on trumpet and piano.
In keeping with this spirituality, the play concludes with Oya’s fate enfolding just as it was predicted by her young friend Elegba (John MacMillan), who dreamt of her future, entwined with the lagoon that has flooded the Young Vic’s main space so boldly.