The end is nearly in sight for The EnsembleTM but before they get released back into the wild in New York in a couple of months' time¹ they're at Hampstead Theatre for the RSC's latest batch of new plays. First up is Rona Munro's Little Eagles, which breaks the recent trend of theming new plays vaguely after Shakespearean works and looks instead at the USSR's space programme. The driving force behind it was chief designer Sergei Korolyov (Darrell D'Silva) whose work helped the Russians win the first leg of the space race; and after whose death they were unable to beat the USA to the Moon.
I liked Ti Green's apt set of a grim industrial space with a shiny metal streak (often acting as a rocket) rising out of it. New commissions by the RSC often struggle under the pressure to be "epic" and there are signs of that here - most obviously in having Greg Hicks occasionally pop up as the ghost of an old man who died in the gulags, which made me snigger every time he slowly stalked on barefoot. It's also evident in a lack of focus which picks up strands of Korolyov's and Gagarin's personal lives then drops them again. One of Korolyov's assistants expressing an interest in his daughter goes precisely nowhere. A bit overwritten it might be but it's not a disaster and although it's not the speediest three hours you'll ever see I wasn't often actually bored. It's nice to see some of The EnsembleTM members who've been in the sidelines get some meatier parts, like Dyfan Dwyfor as a disillusioned Yuri Gagarin and Brian Doherty injecting some life into his every appearance as Krushchev. There's also lots of the ever-fabulous Noma Dumezweni as the doctor who's the closest thing to a best friend Sergei has. There's some lovely moments in Munro's play and Roxana Silbert's production even if it doesn't add up to a great show.
Little Eagles by Rona Munro is booking until the 7th of May at the Hampstead Theatre.
Side note, and I hope this isn't misinterpreted: One thing I noticed yet again here is that "colourblind" casting only really works if you don't draw attention to it. Here for instance, Dumezweni as well as Ansu Kabia as a cosmonaut are clearly playing parts not written with black actors in mind but you happily accept them. On the other hand having a black actress (Debbie Korley) stand between the two white actors (D'Silva and Hannah Young) playing her natural parents² is about as convincing as the National's Frankenstein telling us Benedict Cumberbatch has a West Indian dad; it feels to me like making a big deal of the racial casting which is surely the opposite of what's intended. I think audiences have a huge capacity to suspend disbelief but there's no need to push it and this was one of those instances where you can feel the audience disengaging. A man on wires being spun around by another actor can be orbiting the Earth but a family who could not conceivably be related to each other is for some reason a step too far.
¹my theory is that they'll be totally institutionalised and half of them'll be back for the 2012/13 ensemble
²a white Polonius and Lear with black daughters, as seen recently at the National and Donmar respectively, are fine because we don't see the women's mothers so can mentally cast them however we like.