There’s something about Hymn which feels… off-key. The Almeida’s lyrical production about an unlikely friendship, starring Adrian Lester (Othello, Hustle) and Danny Sapani (Killing Eve), is tightly structured and grandiose in its minimalism. Yet while Chakrabarti’s script comes perfectly full circle in its conclusion, it lacks the necessary crescendo to make its deep emotional impact.
Perhaps some of the blame lies in it being streamed live to audiences at home, robbing the raw addresses to the stalls of the rapport and eye contact which it needs. In an eulogy to his father, Gil (Lester) remarks that “music is silence, sound and time”, yet only so much of the silence in his speech can be felt through a screen. There is some immersion and connection required for it to be felt properly – a ‘spatial aura’, for want of a better word – a silence so quiet you can hear a pin drop, which makes it a lot more physical and profound. There’s a sense that this is what director Blanche McIntyre wanted to do here, but it struggles to evoke poignancy.
It’s why one is left to feel so indifferent by the play’s finale scene, as it returns us to where we started, with a silence and quiet which should feel much heavier after the journey we’ve been on as an audience, but it doesn’t. On a surface level, Hymn may be interpreted as a story which sees two people collide in friendship and deal with the after-effects. We see it in the reversal of the body language displayed by the two characters. Lester’s Gil, a businessman with a formal posture and demeanour in early scenes, hands splayed in front of him to display a kind of superiority, soon relaxes around Benny, a brooding, laid-back family man often with his hands placed firmly in the pockets of his trousers or jacket. After a series of choreographed dances at its peak (with Lester in an afro dancing to Will Smith’s Gettin’ Jiggy With It being one of the few comedic moments in an otherwise deep and emotional piece), Gil becomes Benny, and vice versa.
With this in mind, it’s easy to assume that Hymn is a character study, but then the question then becomes: of whom? We are first introduced to Gil’s grief, and so we then face questions around how this will be resolved – if at all – over the course of the production and the play’s narrative arc. At the same time, we are introduced to lost soul and struggling father Benny, searching for the truth behind his connection to Gil’s deceased father, Gus. Two straightforward storylines should, one would assume, mingle and intertwine in perfect harmony, yet while they are powerfully performed in the two-hander from Lester and Sapani, it feels as though it would be better if one was solo. At one point, Benny describes Gil as “[trying] so hard to play his notes in the right order” when he actually just has to “play his own tune”.
While the jigsaw analogy Benny uses to describe their friendship is cliche and outdated, maybe there is something in the moments where the pair’s relationship starts to falter, as it does shortly after the piece’s climax. Relationships are, by their very nature, imperfect – it is, after all, which makes them so fascinating and intricate.
Yet there isn’t enough time in the 90 minute drama to focus on them addressing such flaws. Benny confides in Gil about his troublesome son after he gets in trouble with the police, but the fractured father-son relationship is soon resolved with little pep talk from Gil and no significant character development from Benny. The same, too, goes for Benny’s unwell mother, an unnecessary and unexplained subplot which offers little in terms of life lessons. Hymn, as billed, is a play which “asks what it takes to be a good father, brother or son”, but the only lesson it focusses on for the most part appears to be one in business and capitalism.
As Gil and Benny get closer as friends, the former proposes starting up a stationery business, coupled with selling complementary, tailor-made suits. Given time – and sure, this production needed more of it – it could very well have been the perfect catalyst for conversations about family roles and personal progression. However in its current version, the emotion and raw conversation feels secondary. Business talk takes centre stage; the sombre heart-to-heart plays quietly in the background. If one were to interpret this musically, aided by the production’s many symbolic elements, then it is like a series of melodies overlapping each other. When we choose to focus on one strand, it is, on its own, impressive, but the cohesion and collective experience is sacrificed as a result.
With a ticking metronome swaying away in the background, resting on top of a grand piano, there is a present rhythm in McIntyre’s direction. The choreography and progression is free flowing and melodic, the acting intense and delicate, but the plot leaves you wanting more – an unfortunate caesura.
Hymn is now streaming online via the Almeida Theatre until Sunday 21 February.
Production Images: Marc Brenner.
Disclaimer: This review is of the preview performance on Wednesday 17 February. I was invited to see Hymn for free as someone who is currently a part of the Almeida Theatre’s Young Critics scheme, which sees us respond to artistic pieces. I did not receive any payment for my involvement in the scheme, or for this review, and all opinions stated above are honest and my own.