"Everything old is new again" seems to be one of the mottos of Rufus Norris's current NT repertoire programming that includes revisits of plays seen in the last few decades at other theatres like the Almeida (Waste), the RSC (The Suicide) and the Royal Court (Cleansed), and now a play that the NT itself previously provided the UK premiere to in 1989, August Wilson's Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, then directed by Howard Davies and now by Dominic Cooke.
Part of Wilson's monumental ten-play cycle of plays that chart black American experience across the twentieth-century, with one play set in each decade, it may seem slightly odd for the NT to be returning to the same one again, when the only other play they've done from Wilson's catalogue was Jitney, the first of the series, that came to the South Bank in an imported American production in 2001 and saw it win the Olivier for Best Play. Two other plays in the cycle won Pulitzer's — Fences, produced twice in the West End in separate productions, and The Piano Lesson.
But if the NT had a lot to choose from before they returned to this one, I'm not going to begrudge it when it is as good as this play and production are. It's a richly characterised contemporary classic, and Cooke directs a spellbinding production to match.
Wilson has a leisurely style, which is to say his plays take their time; there's not a lot in the way of plot here, which revolves around the titular character, who is a blues singer, laying down tracks in a Chicago recording studio. But it's not actually until 31 pages into the published script that she actually arrives there; we first meet her troupe of musicians, her white manager and the white owner of the recording studio.
Bit by bit, Wilson builds up a portrait of underlying tensions between them and the larger picture of the racism they've confronted beyond the studio, sometimes shockingly so as in one of the musicians account of witnessing his own mother's abuse when he was a child — and his father's deadly retribution.
It's both gripping and chastening. And under the delicate, nuanced eye of director Dominic Cooke, it is acted to perfection by a superb cast who totally inhabit every character. There's a musicality and a muscularity to the writing that is repaid in each of the performances — Clint Dyer, Giles Terera, O-T Fagbenle and Lucian Msamati are individually and collectively thrilling as her musicians and feel utterly authentic (even though not all their playing is live).
But it is the arrival of Sharon D Clarke's Ma Rainey that takes the play to another level again. She has long been a favourite of mine in West End musicals from Once on this Island and The Lion King to Ghost, as well as a stalwart of the annual Hackney pantomimes. But she's now fast becoming one of the National's secret weapons in appearances that have recently included The Amen Corner (for which she won an Olivier Award) and Everyman, and here she's simply phenomenal; a true force of nature.
I'm afraid I cannot be as complimentary about Ultz's industrial design of the recording studio or the clumsy way the band's downstairs rehearsal rooms constantly appear and disappear again from below the stage. But it is nonetheless a thrillingly powerful slow-burn of a play that rewards every minute of attention you pay it.
"It’s a play of passion and power... the most moving aspect of the evening was seeing a genuinely mixed audience rising to this landmark play."
Michael Billington for The Guardian
"Sharon D Clarke is terrific as Ma Rainey, regally imperious as she arrives with her entourage... It’s an evening of ensemble pleasure. There’s not a weak link in the cast."
Dominic Cavendish for The Telegraph
"The richly detailed ensemble acting in Dominic Cooke's revival does glowing justice to the masterly mix of hurt and humour in this 1984 play by August Wilson."
Paul Taylor for The Independent
"Good play, good jazz, great acting: the Royal National’s new production of ‘Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom’ hits lots of right notes."
Quentin Letts for The Daily Mail
"Wilson’s real focus, gloriously realised in Dominic Cooke’s lively production, is Ma’s four-piece band, who rehearse (a little) and bicker (a lot) as they wait... More where this came from, please."
Fiona Mountford for The Evening Standard