Review: The Amen Corner, National Theatre

“Ain’t nobody born that infallible”

Reader, I ovated. It is a rare occasion indeed that I actually give a standing ovation, more often than not I think about it and don’t do it but just occasionally, one bears witness to something in a theatre that is just irresistibly, incandescently amazing that the only response is to get on one’s feet. For me, it was Marianne Jean-Baptiste’s simply extraordinary performance as Sister Margaret Alexander that beats powerfully at the heart of The Amen Corner, a revival of a 1965 American play by James Baldwin, that fills the Olivier Theatre with the glorious sound of the London Community Gospel Choir.

Jean-Baptiste’s Sister Margaret is the fiercely passionate leader of her local church in Harlem and living underneath with her sister Odessa and 18 year old son David, she leads her congregation with an iron fist of religious fervour. But trouble is brewing with discontent rumbling in the group of church elders who are looking for an opportunity to oust their leader and when her long estranged husband Luke turns up unexpectedly, they seize the moment as it turns out that their glorious leader may not be as blemish-free as she would have them believe.

Spread over just three days and never leaving the two spaces of Ian MacNeil’s split-level set of church hall and apartment below, this could seem an intimate story but Rufus Norris’ production explodes it resplendently into a tale of epic proportions. Bringing in the near-constant sound of gospel music emphasises the strong sense of community that it, and the church, engenders for many African-Americans and this is contrasted sharply and excellently by the ferocious intensity of the family drama that unfolds downstairs.

Margaret claimed to have been abandoned by her husband, a journey that led to the spiritual enlightenment that culminated in her taking on the role of pastor, but Luke’s arrival puts paid to that story. Lucian Msamati is highly engaging as the trombone-playing Luke, dancing his way back into the affections of his son – Eric Kofi Abrefa in fine form - and even his obdurate wife as he reminds her of the life she once led. And Jean-Baptiste proves herself a tragedian of the finest fettle as her certainties are stripped from her, the son she thought she had bound tightly to her strains for release, the congregation she has nurtured for so long forsakes her leadership. She is a hypnotic presence on the stage, drawing the eye with an almost leonine confidence as she berates and blesses, and utterly breaks the heart as the life she has constructed for herself begins to crumple. 

She is supported by another fantastic performance from Sharon D Clarke as her sister Odessa, the epitome of compassionate grace as she supports her family – her wordless goodbye with David is a piece of heartbreaking wonder – and defends their reputation with her own brand of steely confidence, puncturing the pomposity of the conspirators who would accuse her of professional negligence. And they too are played to perfection by Jacqueline Boatswain, Donovan F Blackwood and the sprightly Cecilia Noble. There’s little of the Christian about the conniving ambition with which they pursue the usurping of Margaret but the way in which they silkily dress it up in well-meaning concern and guileless questions to win over the people smacks of many brands of organised religion to this day, more interested in defending their own power and the status quo than any true spirituality. Noble in particular nails the humour in the pious chastity of Sister Moore condemning behaviour of which she knows nothing about; Blackwood tracing the hypocritical unease of a female pastor leading the congregation knowing that she has “sinned” with a man, conveniently ignoring the fact that her son has played piano for the church for years.

The play itself isn’t perfect. Baldwin lets the errant Luke off a little lightly as none of his behaviour is interrogated to explain the collapse of his marriage and so the burden falls perhaps a little too heavily on Margaret. And a beautifully sensitive sub-plot involving Naana Agyei-Ampadu’s cleaner and her sick child feels under-explored, offering as it does insight into the more spiritual reasons that people are drawn to the church and the salvation that it can offer. But as the production winds to its emotional climax with its rousing soundtrack, there can be little doubt that this is a sensational piece of theatre that deserves to be a huge success and I’m tipping it now, Best Actress Olivier nomination at least for Marianne Jean-Baptiste in what is one of the performances of the year. Praise the Lord, praise the National Theatre.

Running time: 2 hours 30 minutes (with interval)
Booking until 14th August

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