When the Young Vic strikes gold, it usually is a rich vein, and this revival of Tarell Alvin McCraney’s The Brothers Size is muscular, magical and mythic. Bijan Sheibani’s production come to grips with the technical difficulties of McCraney’s script, with its pungent dialogue punctuated with jarring, but illuminating, spoken stage directions and the acting is first rate. Confronting but truly joyful.
In the programme notes, Young Vic Artistic Director Ian David aptly sums up the fascination of The Brothers Size:
From the first instant you feel that it’s feet are clad in sturdy, well-fitting boots, it is certain where it’s heading, it sets off with a superbly confident stride, it leaps off the path, ambles into the bracken, fords a few rivers, dives into dark woods never breaking step, never losing its thrilling, hurtling poise, its sense of a whole human being on the journey of a lifetime.
Of three whole human beings. Gough. Oshoosi. Elegba.
The reconfiguration of the Young Vic auditorium into a gladiatorial space in the round emphasises the rawness, the savagery and the compelling beauty of McCraney’s writing. David’s ananlogies with nature’s variety suit perfectly the story of the Size Brothers, their interactions, squabbles and insecurities, large and small.
It is no exaggeration to say that, at least in parts, the sense of The Brothers Size is quite Shakespearean. At the start it takes some adjusting to appreciate properly the rhythms and the unfamiliar language, but, as with Shakespeare, the gifts of the performers transcend the deficiencies and, before long, the verbal world of the Size Brothers and their associate Elegba is clear and vibrant. Poetry and prose unite for potentcy.
To reveal anything about the plot would be to diminish the effect the production will have upon its audience. Suffice to say it is an individual tale about two brothers and a third man, what binds them, and what sunders their spartan existence. While it might be a tale of two brothers, it is also a universal tale, a tragedy really, which will resonate in some way with all who see it. It says much about human nature generally, and the male African-American experience in particular.
The play haunts you, makes your white privilege tangible and deeply regrettable and, at the same time, inspires by showing the power of Love. And music, here deftly provided by Manuel Pinheiro in a way which summons up the haze of a hot summer, hard liquor, grimy existences, and tough lives. Aline David’s extraordinary movement emphasises the leonine aspect of the lives of the three men – watchful, careful, silky, silent, suddenly active, but a pride. The cub, the elder and the intruder – all with their own steps, moves and motives. But The Lion King it is not.
As Ogun, Sope Dirisu is a magnificent bundle of rage and understanding, a powerful and thoughtful older brother, not without his flaws. His use of silence and stillness is exceptional. The character is multi-layered and thought through in a detailed way; it’s a far cry from his all-at-sea Coriolanus for the RSC recently. This must be about direction, because Ogun shares many characteristics with Coriolanus and Dirisu illuminates them all here, with crisp, intense precision, where he fell short of the mark by a long way at Stratford Upon Avon. His performance here is mesmerising.
Jonathan Ajayi has perhaps the most difficult role as the mercurial Oshoosi, the younger Size brother who has been to jail, separated from the steady protection of Ogun. Ajayi is unfeasibly charismatic, and he makes the darkness and despair of the feelings, memories and emotions that Oshoosi seeks to flee from perfectly clear, perfectly understandable.
The bond between the two brothers is superbly created, and as a result, the rituals and the reckonings ring true. The pain is deep but so is the love and understanding. Their love sustains them, but also entraps them.
Oshoosi wrestles with many things – indolence, aggression, motivation, failure, hope, prospects, friendship, trust – and Ajayi unravels the secrets of his character slowly and carefully, as one would peel an onion. The barest, rawest moment of self-realisation, although well sign-posted, is startlingly effective.
Elegba, the final member of the trio trapped in a circle of life of a particular kind, is played with impeccable clarity by Anthony Welsh. He embodies the sense of an outsider longing to be an insider; a partial insider who wants more. A man with a foot in both camps and an eye for ways to improve his hard life.
All three performers work wonderfully together and the sense of time, place and desperation they evoke is fascinating, as much as it is horrifying. Yet…the final scenes bring a true sense of hope as there is escape for one, possibly both, of the brothers, albeit on different terms.
There is little by way of set, but Patrick Burnier’s design is faultless. The use of the orange-red pigment, with its tribal and ritual connotations, is inspired, literally leaving its mark on the brothers. Mike Gunning’s lighting design is beautifully nuanced, using as little light as possible given the darkness that envelops the world of the Size brothers. The shades of darkness Gunning employs skilfully add to the emotional pitch of the play.
The Brothers Size is a wonderful play (McCraney wrote the screenplay for the Oscar success Moonlight too) and this production lets it shine. It’s ten years since the original Actors Touring Company/Young Vic production of this play wowed audiences and enjoyed standing ovations. Time has not withered its impact.