Adrian Lester and Danny Sapani in Hymn
In February, in the wake of a third national lockdown, London’s Almeida Theatre chose to present their previously announced ‘socially distanced season’ digitally. Adrian Lester and Danny Sapani performed – two metres apart – to an empty house, in an immaculately-shot world premiere of Lolita Chakrabarti’s Hymn. The production moved and engaged me then, but this hardly compares to the force with which the play gripped me in its triumphant in-person staging this summer.
In front of an enthusiastic, often-interactive young audience (I saw it during one of the theatre’s ‘Almeida for Free’ nights for under-25s), a quiet, tender two-hander is transformed into a lively and hilarious delight. Blanche McIntyre’s deceptively simple staging allows the outstanding performances of Lester and Sapani to drive the drama to terrific, near-ecstatic heights. Yet Hymn’s sheer joyousness makes its ultimate tragedy all the more devastating.
The play sees Benny (Sapani) and Gil (Lester) attending a funeral: Gil’s father’s funeral – and so it transpires, Benny’s too. Neither have met before, and in a terse café meeting Gil discovers that the dad he has just eulogised fathered another son, only six weeks after him. He is no longer the youngest sibling, and an uneasy friendship is struck between the newfound brothers – a friendship that blossoms into a strong bond, forming the core of the play.
Chakrabarti has said her main aim was to write a play about platonic male love, and Hymn is certainly a love story of sorts. She probes masculinity, and its intersections with race, though she keeps most of this subtextual. When Benny and Gil start training at the gym together (Gil couldn’t stand the ‘sandalwood and sage’ calm of yoga.), Gil recounts his frustration with a woman who blocked the road ahead of him. With cars lining up behind him, he is unable to reverse, but she refuses to move. He tries to break the impasse by getting out of the car to talk to her, but when he asks her to move, she rolls up the window, saying ‘I’m worried you’re going to hit me’. Chakrabarti leaves us to untangle the woman’s racial prejudices from the complications of Gil’s gender and class context. The woman’s response is clearly racially coded, yet we have also seen Gil’s amiable demeanour slip earlier in the play. Gil’s initial hostility to Benny seems driven by their disparity in class and wealth and on receipt of their belated cappuccinos he snaps at the service staff that ‘you’re not too good for this job’. Gil’s entitlement re-emerges in his retelling of the automotive stalemate. He feels that he and his BMW – his ‘BM’, as he calls it to laughed scorn from the audience – have right of way. All the more troubling is the way that Gil and Benny’s friendship blossoms in boxing practice when Benny suggests Gil imagines that the punchbag he is pummelling is ‘that woman in that car’.
Chakrabarti chronicles such encounters throughout the play with a compelling nuance. Male camaraderie grows from both mutual hate figures and shared passions. The two men become truly at ease with each other through singing and dancing – in a scene that truly comes to life in front of an audience, egging Adrian Lester on as his bashful, non-committal moves transform into athletic breakdance. The play is made far richer by these moments, that are far from mere interludes. Early in the play, a sombre rendition of ‘Lean on Me’ – Lester playing the piano in a soulful duet with Sapani – eulogises a complicated father and presages the reliance (for good and ill) that Gil and Benny will have on each other. Later, when they dance with abandon, it is as if they are reliving an adolescence they never shared. The bedrock of their relationship is a supportive masculinity of mutual affirmation. Chakrabarti’s script is rife with occasional moments which beautifully express the subtle yet sweeping ways men can support each other. When Benny’s son Louis is getting in trouble with the police, Gil tells Benny: ‘You’re his parachute – you’ve just got to wait for him to pull the cord’.
There are potential dangers too though. Hymn’s conception of masculinity is all about facades. Gil’s new business idea is to sell high-end designer stationery with matching clothes. You never really get a sense of how Gil has moved into this industry from running a chain of dry-cleaners and the idea itself works better as a stage metaphor than it would do as a practical business venture, but maybe that is the point. The idea seems tailor-made to Gil’s character. His sharp-suited professionalism belies a deep insecurity that he has never lived up to the successes of his older sisters (as well as his father). It masks an inner self-loathing that hurts those around him. His charm evaporates when reprimanding serving staff for tardiness, and when things go wrong for him, he loses all his enthusiasm and resolve, lapsing into self-pity rather than attempting to fix what he has broken. The inexorability of the play’s climax struck me as a structural weakness in February, yet seeing it again (knowing the ending for certain) I found Gil’s arc all the more tragic for its inevitability.
At the play’s end, both characters declare their love for each other in various forms, though neither has managed to tell the other to their face. Hymn ends where it begins, in church – a place earlier described as the only place where people’s expressions of feeling can be ‘complete’. For Chakrabarti, masculinity is, in part, characterised by difficulties of self-expression. As Benny suggests, in the closing monologue: it isn’t so much a problem of concealment, as of how to express yourself. Benny quotes Miles Davis, saying ‘sometimes it takes a long time to sound like yourself’. Here, it even takes someone else’s words for Benny to sound like himself.
Yet the staging suggestively proffers another place where ‘complete’ expression is possible: the theatre. The gorgeous lighting design coupled with the distinctive brickwork at the back of the Almeida’s stage evokes the space of a recently built church. As Hymn gently suggests, perhaps the possibility of expressing the tender, complicated feelings that underlie (particularly male) platonic friendships is what makes theatre near-unique – and all the better for being in the room where it happens.
HymnWritten by Lolita Chakrabarti, Directed by Blanche McIntyre, Starring Adrian Lester and Danny Sapani
Reviewed 6th August 2021