Available until: Livestreams at various times every day except Monday with the final show on Sunday 7th March at 5pm.
I’ve found there are two kinds of violent books. The ones where the main objective seems to be to write about something shocking and terrible. And the ones where the main objective is to tell a story.
When I read Alice Walker’s remarkable novel The Color Purple, it was clear it belonged in the second category. Some of the violence in the book is shocking and difficult to read about, but it’s there because it has to be. It’s part of the story Celie is telling. It’s there because Celie’s story needs to be told.
The prospect of seeing the work adapted as a musical did fill me with some trepidation. Even on a stage, it is possible to simulate violence to an upsetting degree. Many of the male characters in this story are habitually violent because it’s part of society. Some of the women are violent because they believe it’s what they need to do in order to survive.
But there was actually very little violence that was shown in Tinuke Craig’s powerful and challenging yet deeply thoughtful and human production. The focus was more on showing the effects of the violence on the characters, psychologically, socially and emotionally. Of course, a verbal description of violence can sometimes be more distressing than seeing it because of what our imaginations conjure up in our minds, but I think the fact the musical focuses more on the effects of violence is a great strength. Not so much because it saved us from seeing things that might be unpleasant to watch – seeing the effects of violence can be equally upsetting, anyway – but because it seemed to be taking a step away from the current trend for violent media and showing very clearly that if you don’t see the violence, there’s still a story to tell. In this case, one of the best stories I’ve ever read.
The Color Purple is an epistolatory novel which means that a lot of the events in the play were things Celie heard about rather than things she saw. Marsha Norman, who wrote the book of the musical, could have done all these scenes with Celie offstage, but she often kept the scenes as they were, with another character telling Celie what had happened. I think this works well. The moments when we’re waiting for Celie to be told something which we know will be bad news makes us feel like we’re right there waiting with her. Marsha has also done brilliantly at retaining Celie’s voice. In the book, Celie’s voice runs right through her letters. In the play, we obviously only hear her voice when she speaks, but the character has been really strongly-written. All the characters have. It really is a beautiful adaption.
The music and lyrics were written by Brenda Russell, Allee Willis and Stephen Bray. The lyrics are full of power and meaning and the music is beautiful and soul-stirring and there is something really exciting about listening to it. Part of the success of the music is that the cast sing it so brilliantly, but they can’t bring out qualities in the music if they aren’t there.
The book of The Color Purple is really incredible, but I did struggle a bit with the character of Shug. She can be mean – one of the first things Celie says about her in the book is that she’s mean – and I felt this so strongly, I didn’t like her as much as I wanted to. But this musical did help me to love her and I’m sure I’ll feel differently about Shug when I read the book again.
T’Shan Williams wasn’t the first actor to be cast in the role of Celie. I won’t go into the reasons for the change because there’s been enough said about that, but I am really happy for the Curve that things have worked out as they have. It’s terrible they had to go through all that, but everything turned out as it ought to and they’ve produced really brilliant musical – with an exceptional star. This story is lauded for its strong women, but I like the fact they’re all different and that there isn’t one way for a strong woman to behave. T’Shan’s Celie is quietly strong and steadfast, hurt by every storm but always weathering it with courage, dignity and humanity. Even when she is still, her energy reaches out through the screen. It’s a beautifully-acted performance and her voice is stunning.
Experiencing a story in a different medium can help you look at it in new ways and appreciate the original story more, but only if the writing and performance are really good – and both are. Carly Mercedes Dyer, who will be playing Jane Seymour on the Six tour when it resumes, shows Shug’s power and attitude but invests her with warmth, love and protectiveness and it’s clear why the other characters love her, even though she’s far from perfect.
Danielle Fiamanya gives a touching performance as Nettie and very cleverly shows the ways in which Nettie grows up, without losing Nettie’s fundamental sweetness. She is yet another actor with an incredible voice, as is Karen Mavundukure, who plays Sofia. Sofia is very aggressive and Karen shows this, but she also shows Sofia’s determination and loyalty. Her voice is soaring and astonishingly powerful both in volume and emotional range.
The men don’t come across quite so well. Celie’s Pa is a horrifically cruel and abusive man, but KM Drew Boateng does at least make him interesting to watch, rather than someone you can’t stand to look at. Ako Mitchell’s Mister is also not a good man at all, but he does at least seem capable of caring about other people. Simon-Anthony Rhoden plays Harpo, a man who isn’t particularly strong-minded and has some views on marriage which aren’t particularly praiseworthy, but Simon makes him likeable, if not admirable, which means he got the characterisation exactly right.
This has got to be one of the best musicals of this century. It deserves a long run in the West End.