The week in theatre: Boys from the Blackstuff; Vanya; Mlima’s Tale – review

The big revelation for me this week was the Royal Court. Not the theatre in London’s Sloane Square but the whopping Liverpool theatre where you are offered different new writing and your supper, cabaret-style, for £30. The venue specialises in work that features the city, which is not a restriction but a focus. It’s selling out – more than 1,000 seats – for its staging, co-produced with Stockroom (formerly Out of Joint), of Boys from the Blackstuff.

Alan Bleasdale had always turned down requests to make a stage version of his television triumph, the tale of tarmacers whose livings were destroyed in the 1980s, which was first a BBC Play for Today then a series. He thought it would work only on the small screen. Then director Kate Wasserberg introduced him to the plays of James Graham. Bleasdale was converted: Graham has, he says, “taken my voice and thrown it” – thrown it so that it lands in the present with a punch.

The story is both specific and far-reaching. Amy Jane Cook’s big, exhilarating design gives the action a pulse. Scarlet girders and scaffolding reach across the stage; the videos of Jamie Jenkin (who started at the Court in the box office) offer a glimmer of the Mersey and a glimpse of the city’s two cathedrals, Anglican and Catholic, descending like bell jars. Irony twists throughout. Men whose lives were dedicated to the idea of being on the move – building roads and working on the docks – are brought to a halt by unemployment. At a time when only ecclesiastics and those dispensing benefits (or snooping on claimants) are in regular employment, the judgments of church and state are intertwined. At the funeral of George, the conscience of the play, acted with fine concentration by Andrew Schofield, these inquisitorial presences are recognised as moral prison bars.

What goes on is fiercer than traditional Chekhov. Boredom is raging loss and disappointment. Wistful romance is sexual longing

The divisions, the tornness, the waste of talent are shrewdly captured by Nathan McMullen’s Chrissie – fighting against the temptation to betray. It is he, not Yosser, who is the play’s guiding figure. But Bernard Hill made Yosser Hughes unforgettable, so it is wonderful that Barry Sloane re-embodies him in all his magnetic fury: butting the overseer who criticises his bricklaying (the gaps are for ventilation) and his script, so that his words spurt in little bouts. Yosser has been made feral. He is a strange kind of martyr, here beaten by police to the music of a liturgical lament by Dyfan Jones. Yet his energy and wit charge the theatrical air. “Gissa job,” he says to the priest. “I could do that” – and swings an imaginary thurible.

My second revelation this week was about one-man shows. They don’t have to be all about the one man. Andrew Scott is indeed tremendous in Vanya, playing all the parts in a slimmed-down, updated version of Chekhov’s play, but he is not brimming over with dazzle; he takes the audience into the action, and non-action. This is not merely an acting showcase; it is a joint remoulding. Listed as “co-creators” alongside Scott are adapter Simon Stephens, director Sam Yates and designer Rosanna Vize.

This cooperation – a true theatricality – has something of Chekhov’s antiheroic generosity: any one of his characters could be the centre of his plays. It suggests, too, something of the way Scott morphs from one person to another: blurring the boundaries so that you don’t always know immediately who is who. This is not a series of perky cameos; what hangs in the air is what goes on between characters.

What goes on is fiercer than traditional Chekhov – though that is a fast-fading concept. Boredom is raging loss and disappointment. Wistful romance is sexual longing (Scott rather overdoes the writhing here). The decline of forests is a looming catastrophe. Oh, and the samovar is a teapot. Vize’s design is enabling rather than atmospheric: a swing, a plywood wall, a central door through which Scott goes to mark a change of perspective.

Related: Andrew Scott: ‘We need a bit more of people not liking things’

There is real reinterpretation: the femme fatale Helena does not sweetly seduce, she commands; her voice as deep as a man’s. And sudden insight. The egotism of the father – not an academic but a film-maker – is captured in a terrifying square smile that he switches on mechanically as if he were clicking a camera. Good-hearted, principled, capable Sonia, grief-stricken at her plain face, winds a tea towel in her hands when anxious, throws it over her face when embarrassed; Helena gestures at it dismissively to show what a mere homebody the young woman is.

Sly jokes are implanted. Dad is mocked for having made his career out of adaptations – like this adaptation? Towards the end, an invisible being is greeted warmly – and responds that he has been there all along. In the closing moments the chair in which Vanya himself sits is empty. Scott crouches beside it as Sonia (no tea towel), looking up, addressing her speech to “uncle”. The play’s supposed main character is – as always – defined by those around him. As he thought himself to be.

The American playwright Lynn Nottage is at last coming in force to the British stage. Later this month Clyde’s opens at the Donmar; in the spring The Secret Life of Bees was at the Almeida. Meanwhile, Mlima’s Tale, which premiered at the Public Theater in New York in 2018, is given an imaginative prod by Miranda Cromwell.

Based on a 2014 article by Damon Tabor, the play tracks the path of ivory smuggling: from the killing by poachers of a great tusker in a Kenyan game park to the ogling of the carved tusks in a Beijing ivory shop. In 16 brief scenes – a moonlit savannah, a Nairobi office, a cargo container, a Vietnamese carving shop – a cast of five multitask as rustlers and rangers, corrupted sea captains, arms suppliers, reporters, wildlife spokesman, dealers (Natey Jones is slinkily persuasive as a particularly venal operator) and indiscriminate buyers. Oh, and as an elephant.

Mlima – the name means mountain – is the butchered creature. He is incarnated by Ira Mandela Siobhan: entrapped and attacked, then haunting the action. Shelley Maxwell’s movement direction is vital: Siobhan sways gravely but never does obvious elephant trundling; as he bends and uncurls, his arms, striped with white paint, reach out in the shape of tusks. Entwining himself in scenes in which these tusks are hacked and traded, he leaves a smudge of paint or dust on everyone he touches: the mark of complicity.

How rare to see an animal evoked rather than mimicked, without cuteness or sentimentality. Amelia Jane Hankin and Amy Mae conjure Mlima’s effect and landscape with set design and lighting, creating a world of shadows and suggestion from which he emerges, memory becoming substance, to the ripple of Femi Temowo’s music. The staging is mesmerising but not driving enough fully to deliver the urgency of its subject. In under 20 years, elephants will be close to extinction: more are being killed than are being born.

Star ratings (out of five)
Boys from the Blackstuff
Mlima’s Tale