The Donmar Warehouse has ventured out of its renowned Covent Garden lair for Donmar Trafalgar, a three year initiative promoting the work of the venue’s young directors. This year’s 12 week season at the Trafalgar Studios kicks off with the British premiere of US playwright Beau Willimon’s post-Hurricane Katrina drama, Lower Ninth, directed by Charlotte Westenra.
Staged in the smaller of the theatre’s two performance spaces, the venue is intimate in the extreme. It seems there is barely room to fit the set – comprised solely of a tiled roof – in the auditorium where, especially during a rooftop fight scene, the actors seem destined for the laps of the front row. But for a drama that exploits a sense of entrapment, heat and claustrophobia, the tightness of the space is entirely suitable as you get up close and personal with Lower Ninth’s three protagonists.
Set in New Orleans’s devastated Lower Ninth district, a particularly under-privileged area hit hardest by Hurricane Katrina, two black New Orleans residents Malcolm and E-Z are stranded on a rooftop awaiting their rescue. Their worldly possessions have been swept away in the floods and their only other company on the rooftop is the body of their friend Low Boy. As it turns out, the older bible-quoting Malcolm is E-Z’s father, a reformed criminal with a drug-linked past. Recently returned from a decade of estrangement from his family, Malcolm is played with weary gravitas by Ray Fearon.
Essentially a two-hander with a surprise guest, the dynamic between Malcolm and Richie Campbell’s E-Z on board the rickety roof, surrounded by rotting destruction, is the core of the 75 minute play, which is at times humourous, hysterical, antagonistic, despairing, desolate and violent.
In an hour and a quarter, there is not a lot of room for manoeuvre for the play’s themes. Willimon touches on Afro-American social degradation, religious faith, ghetto politics, personal salvation and, in perhaps the only odd note of the evening, makes references to the White House’s much derided response to the hurricane. After all, stranded on a roof, how would E-Z even have known that ‘Dubya’ hadn’t turned up yet? Nevertheless Lower Ninth is a compelling piece of work where the performers have literally nowhere to hide, in a taut performance space where every bead of sweat or sigh is laid bare as Westenra teases nuanced performances from the bijoux cast, particularly Fearon.