Theatre 503, London SW11
Opened 12 June, 2009

When I say that Katori Hall’s play is a work of hagiography, I mean it literally. The Reverend Dr Martin Luther King may make noises of modesty here when compared to the saints, but he is clearly being placed on a par with them. Put it this way: he spends his final night on Earth conversing with an angel, who confirms his exalted status and carries him up to Heaven. Hall may think she is being critical by having King use a few expletives (not nearly as many as his interlocutor, who “swears like a sailor with the clap”) and make passes at the mysterious Camae before, and even after, she reveals her celestial nature. But praise is no less praise for being plain-spoken, and nothing in these 75 minutes modulates the fundamental register of laudation.
So: Dr King, in the Lorraine Motel in Memphis on the night of April 3, 1968, having sent Ralph Abernathy off to buy him some cigarettes, is working alone on his next major speech when the hotel maid Camae delivers his coffee. She is attractively feisty, and we suspect that the good doctor’s alleged wandering loins may be in for one last night of it, until she announces that she is in fact an angel. Some of us – those of us who are me, at any rate – may disbelieve her, guessing instead that she is some Mephistophelean figure akin to the Fourth Tempter in T.S Eliot’s Murder In The Cathedral, bringing “The last temptation [which] is the greatest treason: To do the right deed for the wrong reason.” Alas, that is too complex for Hall. The Memphian-born playwright’s programme notes suggest that she is still negotiating a place in her psychogeography for King’s assassination; if so, she is still in the early stages, not yet interrogating his life and legacy in a meaningful way.
David Harewood as King does The Voice with some power, so much indeed that it may overshadow his characterisation. Lorraine Burroughs has more to work with in Camae’s earthly aspect than her heavenly one; in general, the more explicit things grow, the more disappointingly undramatic they become. At least the play contains a nod to the old joke: “Have you seen God?” – “Yes, and She’s black.” But the possible Obama allusion later on is more characteristic of a eulogy which is so over-egged as to induce cholesterol poisoning.
Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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