Running in repertory with the current Exchange production of Anna Karenina, and using many of the same cast and backstage team, The Rolling Stone is, for my money, a much more impressive production.
God knows there’s still a disturbing amount of homophobia and tabloid hysteria in this country, more than enough to make any reasonable person lament. But compared with the background to Chris Urch’s Bruntwood prize-winning play, we’re relatively sane and progressive.
Uganda, where this powerful play is set, has been, and remains, such a terrifying melting-pot of the woeful legacy of colonialism and the vacuum-filling rhetoric of religious maniacs that being pointed out there as gay can not only see you carted off to jail with your character and livelihood ruined, as well as that of your family and friends, but actually cost you your life, murdered by modern lynch-mobs.
So when a Ugandan tabloid newspaper named The Rolling Stone (forget any hippy connotations) took to publishing pictures of men they believed to be homosexuals, along with details of their names and addresses, the consequences were catastrophic, often fatal. Urch remembers seeing an image in 2010 of an ‘out’-ed man, who’d been dragged into the street and set on fire by a raging mob, with men, women and children simply looking at his still-smoking skeleton.
This is the background to The Rolling Stone but, while rage, fear and tension bubble through the production, the triumph of Urch’s script, developed with the Bruntwood team over a couple of years, is that it has a heart just as full of love and even humour.
Crucially, it isn’t merely about the politics of gender, but the story of a family caught up in them.
Dembe (Fiston Barek) is a young Ugandan, compelled to keep his rather sweetly portrayed relationship with Irish doctor, Sam (Robert Gilbert) secret from his neighbours and family, not least his older brother Joe (Sule Rimi). Joe has just been named pastor of his local church and has to prove himself to the congregation by spouting all manner of witch-hunting, anti-gay gibberish from the pulpit, while Dembe’s sister Wummie (Faith Omole) may suspect but would never endanger either of her beloved brothers.
Meanwhile the local church matriarch Mama (Donna Berlin) can’t quite understand why Dembe won’t marry her daughter Naome (Ony Uhiara), whose hasn’t spoken for years after some traumatic event, or why Joe and their shared faith can’t cure her.
There are obvious overtones of The Crucible here and there, as personal dislike or possible gain begins to influence denunciations as much as prejudice and fear. But by keeping his focus very firmly on the central family and skilfully managing the pace, Urch manages to retain an iron grip on the audience’s attention – indeed the tension is almost unbearable in places.
It’s a terrific, meaningful production and will, I’m sure, continue to impress audiences when it joins Anna Karenina to travel on from the Royal Exchange to the West Yorkshire Playhouse in Leeds.
By Kevin Bourke
Photos by Jonathan Keenan
The Rolling Stone and Anna Karenina continue at the Royal Exchange until May 1, 2015 then Anna Karenina is at the West Yorkshire Playhouse May 9 – June 13, 2015 with The Rolling Stone from May 12-23, 2015.