Bijan Sheibani directs an amazing production that tackling cultural and societal issues in an innovative and refreshing way. Nothing compares.
From ‘Kowope Barber Shop’ in Lagos to the ‘Three Kings Barber Shop’ in London, Inua Ellams allows us an insight to the dynamics of these places and the rich conversation that comes from one room in one day. We travel to six different cities around the world and six separate barber shops all with very different stories that, throughout the course of the play, connect with one another and create a global conversation between men.
Bijan Sheibani’s direction of Ellams’ play infuses it with a vitality that never ceases and infects those watching from the moment they take their seats. When walking into the theatre you are greeted by a DJ on stage and party music filling your ears before members of that cast gradually fill the stage inviting members of the audience on stage for a hair cut or just to dance. This creates an intimacy and breaks down the wall that has previously stood between the actors on the stage and the people coming to watch, whilst also priming our engagement with the play. Only 5 minutes remained before the start of the performance but the stage was full of people, young and old, dancing to Cameo’s ‘Candy’ with the audience finding it impossible to sit still and therefore partaking in the party happening on stage.
This musicality laced the performance as we were treated to a cappella as well as popular track recordings of songs used to transition from scenes and counties with dance-like movement sequences that encouraged movement from the entire auditorium. Everything about the music and movement within this show was refreshing and something that had never been seen before by many watching; it was doing more than your average theatre show and this sets it apart from other shows that had the same intent.
Aside from the energy of the music, the 12-man cast gave incredibly strong and sustained performances that were serious, comedic, and emotional all at the right moments and in the perfect degree. In the first two minutes the room was filled with laughter as two dynamic actors performed a comedic scene that set the tone for the entire show. From then on, we are hardly given a moment to pause as we are treated to a fast-paced narrative split between six cities and different time zones. However the beauty of this is that it never becomes confusing. Rae Smith’s design becomes integral to locating us in the world and separating the multiple narratives in a way that allows us to digest and connect them.
Big topics are covered in this show and there is an educational element that pervades each barbershop that transforms this from being just a performance, to actually working as a political and social commentary that isn’t afraid to tackle such topics as the use of the n-word and the TRC in the aftermath of apartheid. These moments allows the audience to pause and whilst some were scenes that proves hard to watch, especially that in which the TRC was discussed, they were necessary. Never before have I seen theatre that tackles subjects in such a way that transcends the performance to become an opportunity of cultural and historical learning. This felt as though we were watching real people, and being given a slice of life that we would never have seen otherwise.
The sheer number of creates, nineteen in total, make this a real collaboration and is something demonstrated on the stage by the set design and the way in which the actors navigate this through movement, as well as the prominence of the barbers shop and the depictions of the skill found in barbing. With this it becomes impossible to not acknowledge that Ellams and Sheibani are doing something more. They give a voice to African and Caribbean men on stage that pulls a different type of audience to the theatre, one that feels a representation and true connection to what is being said and there lies the true merit. We aren’t watching black men play roles that anyone could play, instead we are watching black men tell stories of other black men.
With Ellams’ play, Sheibani has breathed new life into the landscape of theatre in an exciting and infectious way. I can only hope that this inspires more theatre that works as a social commentary on underrepresented societies in a similar way to this. I can only thank Bijan Sheibani, Inua Ellams, and all the other cast and creatives for delivering the greatest piece of theatre I have seen in a long time, and that I’m unlikely to see again for a while.