One man's struggle and seriocomic meditation on liberty, loyalty and identity is how you could describe Suzan-Lori Parks's layered three-hour trilogy Father Comes Home from the Wars (Royal Court Theatre) directed by Jo Bonney, which is the first third of her ambitious American odyssey.
It is early spring 1862 outside a small cabin on a ranch in Texas and the four slaves gathering in the receding darkness have one subject to discuss: Whether Hero, a fellow slave, will agree to follow his master off to fight in the Civil War – on the Confederate side. Hero himself, feels torn between self-interest – he has been promised his freedom in exchange for his service – and intense loathing of the cause he will be supporting, fighting against those striving to abolish slavery. "I will be helping out on the wrong side," he says grimly. "That sticks in my throat and makes it hard to breathe. The wrong of it." As matters are endlessly chewed over so Hero's decision is examined from all sides with slightly enervating results. Is freedom for Hero an empty promise that may come at great cost?
By turns philosophical and playful, lyrical and earthy, the play borrowing some of the imagery of Homer's Odyssey swoops, leaps and dives across its epic narrative, reimagining a turbulent turning point in American history through the contemporary lens. But this is a flawed work – the drama is told at excessive length and would have benefited from some judicious pruning, while the various plot strands seem to come together rather awkwardly and the humour is somewhat thickly laid on. Nevertheless, Suzan-Lori Parks manages to shed a fresh and moving light on a well-worked subject.
Furthermore, the performances are all highly commendable – Steve Toussaint makes an imposing Hero, John Stahl a convincingly gruff and wiry Colonel, Nading Marshall excels as Hero's long-suffering wife Penny and Tom Bateman makes his mark as a captured Union Officer called Smith with a surprising secret.
With the current racial tension in America lending the play a chilling topicality, I couldn't help but recall the disturbing quote from the drama: "Seems like the worth of a coloured man once he's made free, is less than his worth as a slave".
Father Comes Home from the Wars
Plays at the Royal Court Theatre until October 22 2016
Box office: 020 7565 5000
Photos: ©Tristram Kenton