How do you begin to review a play that deserves a thesis of its own? August Wilson's 1983 play, Fences, is weighty work. In its current two hours and forty minutes iteration it seems to question, almost exhaustively, the range of universal themes: state versus personal responsibility; how we treat veterans; change and stability; where to sacrifice and when to focus self interest; grief, mental health, male friendships; race and gender; what makes a family, a man, a woman, a husband, a wife and their marriage.
The great achievement under Paulette Randall's direction is that the story telling allows for the careful revelation of her complicated and so believably human characters. Lenny Henry's Troy is by turns vulnerable, uncomfortably bawdy, bitter and perceptive. It's easy to see how this larger than life anti-hero might take up all the praise and focus of the audience. To me it's really his supporting cast, particularly in his wife Rose, that shines the light on the many sides of this greying, racially marginalised, formally talented baseball player. And it is Wilson's ability to lay bare, without ever descending into caricature, the intimate relationships of an African-American man of the 1950's that fills me with pride. It provides us with a rarely captured look into what it is and was to be Black in post war America.
Most of it is uneasy viewing; Troy's sentences are littered with 'nigger' this and 'nigger' that. While the word's currency may have been, and continues to be, strong in many Black (and White) communities, the way it plunged me immediately into the racial back story and contemporary history of the United States made me flinch each and every time. Yet this and other tensions allow the tenderness of the male relationships to be shown in high relief.
There's the brotherly love, respect and initial ease between Troy and his long time friend Bono; the frustrating inability of these garrulous men to ever really say what they mean. There's Cory's awkwardness and brewing rage as he grows into manhood and tries to carve a life of his own outside of the fences of his father's failures. There's Troy's inability to show either of his sons love in ways they can appreciate. And then there's tender, broken Gabriel - Troy's brother. Damaged by an injury in WW2 and possibly suffering Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, he brings an honest and innocent love to the stage. He rightly pinpoints Troy's barely concealed anger and yet also pays his brother the ultimate tribute of love.
Rose for me steals the play. She is such a fabulous presence, and the only woman, in the play; what a woman she is. She gives a master class in how many women manage their homes, men and families and despite the odds hold themselves and those they love together as best they can. There's a heartbreaking scene when pleading with Troy to understand how they have come apart, she manages still to soothe Gabriel's need for attention while holding her ground as her husband reveals his biggest mistake.
Like all great works, Wilson exposes the humanity of his characters and asks us each what we might do in such a situation. That each of the characters is flawed provides an opportunity ultimately not to judge but to remember that truth is ever subjective. That to stand in someone else's shoes is more challenging than we might want to admit. Perhaps this is why we rarely do it. Go and see it.
Fences; Duchess Theatre, 3-5 Catherine St London WC2B 5LA
Running till 14 September.