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I didn’t want Debbie Tucker Green’s short play Generations to start until it did. The introductory musical ensemble, music by Pauline Malefane, was a knockout layering of African polyrhythms and textures. Yet when Green’s play begins, it fits right in. Too much of the time, plays are talked about in terms of what they are about, but the best playwrights are as concerned with rhythm, soundworld, texture, structure, shape as ever they are with so-called content. All art constantly aspires towards the condition of music, wrote Walter Pater: he was wrong about “constantly”, but there is no British playwright today working to make his point more clear than Green. She writes mainly for tight ensembles, where one voice answers or echoes or continues the last in patterns of enthralling rhythm.
At only 30 minutes, Generations is too short. And yet it runs the risk not only of covering too little terrain but also of outlasting its welcome. Those word-patterns, with their quasi-repetitions, are apparently designed along the lines of Gertrude Stein’s. All that happens is that African men and women talk about the tradition of cookery: we understand them as talking in child/parent, husband/ wife situations, and the idea of cookery starts to grow into something atavistic, a tradition that is passed on with varying degrees of success or failure, resentment or competition. I found it remarkable, engrossing, multi-faceted.
Green is blessed in her director, Sacha Wares. The actors and singers make this community richly enthralling. And the rhythm snares us like a net. But the play itself never quite achieves the complex generosity of Malefane’s musical introduction and interludes. Green covered more ground in Trade (2005, seen at Soho Theatre in 2006), and with more sociological bite too.
But Generations is full of nuance, suggestiveness. And Malefane’s music turns this brief event into a major one. There are snatches of astoundingly vivid dancing (pulse pounding through pelvis and torso), lines of noblest classical vocalism, urgently chanted name-catalogues, and thick-woven, multi-layered sequences of enthusiastic group singing. The vitality and the textures are life-enhancing.
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