sun 25/02/2024

Meetings, Orange Tree Theatre review - three-hander that chews on big issues | reviews, news & interviews

Meetings, Orange Tree Theatre review - three-hander that chews on big issues

Meetings, Orange Tree Theatre review - three-hander that chews on big issues

Mustapha Matura's 1981 play set in modern Trinidad is superbly served up

'Big educated man': Kevin N Golding as HughMarc Brenner

Mustapha Matura’s 1981 play, Meetings, is still a knockout. Supply the characters with mobile phones and it could be set in the present day. 

What makes it topical is the central issue it chews on: is the modern world all it’s cracked up to be, or is progress a toxic brand? Jean, an advertising executive who loves all things contemporary, including fast food, is married to a businessman, Hugh, who is increasingly hankering for the tastes of his youth – swordfish in yellow gravy, okra and rice, manicou, that kind of thing. The culinary quest that begins in their snazzy Trinidad kitchen leads them to an unforeseen destination with shades of Ibsen. 

As Jean and Hugh, Martina Laird (pictured below right) and Kevin N Golding deliver Matura’s pungent dialogue with panache, their sing-song Trinidadian inflections and locutions a treat to listen to. Their banter initially lands as comedy, with Golding swaying and dancing to his lines, while Laird parries with razor-sharp timing and a voice that can move with ease from a high-pitched coo to a bark.

Beneath the comedy, though, lurks a darkness that slowly manifests itself. In pursuit of his childhood food, Hugh has begun to buy fresh fruit from an old lady on the street, Marie, with whom he begins a friendship. She is from “the country”, a world away from their mansion with its Mercedes parked out front, a swimming pool at the back and a fur coat in cold storage (“It’s for New York,” Jean insists). Jean is sceptical about Marie’s suitability as a friend for Hugh, especially as he increasingly starts quoting her advice on everything from herbal remedies to why cocoa is a superior beverage to coffee. 

Martina Laird in MeetingsToo busy with meetings and appointments, Jean doesn’t prepare food at home, so through Marie the couple acquire a live-in cook, her granddaughter Elsa (excellent Bethan Mary-James, pictured below left), a seemingly unworldly girl who can knock up exactly the no-frills local dishes Hugh loves, though she’s puzzled about the whole arrangement. She doesn’t even understand why they want to pay her. 

Matura has a lot of fun with Elsa’s induction by Hugh into the ways of the couple’s kitchen – “This kitchen has everything but food!” Hugh snorts at Jean in the opening scene – where it becomes clear nothing has been used except the coffee grinder. (Which Elsa probably won’t be using anyway as she has brought along her mortar and pestle.) He also loves this kitchen, though, caressing its surfaces. And when Elsa describes a meal she is going to prepare for him, he goes into an exaggerated shiver that’s almost like sexual gratification. 

Elsa grows closer to Hugh as his friendship with Marie deepens, going to market early and preparing his special dishes; with Jean, she can indulge in girlie chatter and talk tactics about snagging a boyfriend. Her naturalness, which includes cheerily walking around on her first morning in just her nightie, is in total contrast to the world the couple inhabit, full of devious business moves, political in-fighting and the new colonialism of being exploited by big US companies. One such company is launching a new cigarette brand in Trinidad, Luna, which Jean is preparing an ad campaign for, exultant that her firm has landed the contract. 

In a brilliant speech that encapsulates Matura’s skill as a dramatist, she outlines to Hugh what is different about Luna cigarettes – there’s a special secret chemical in them – and why it’s a privilege that Trinidad – after a lot of research, she stresses – has been specifically chosen to launch them. Poking through her confident-sounding dialogue is the sinister possibility that the locals are going to be guinea pigs for a product of dodgy provenance. A whiff of corporate mendacity lingers. And as Jean already has a cough from smoking Lunas, we see her boosterism as an act of self-deception too.

Bethan Mary-James as Elsa in MeetingsHugh, meanwhile, is being drawn beyond the creole food he loves into the more ancient ritual traditions Elsa and Marie expose him to. Marie takes him to ceremonies at her village; he takes her to business meetings and site visits, grateful for the wisdom about  people she can dispense. Soon he is proselytising for the “old ways”, a simple and uncomplicated way of living that brings people together instead of turning them on each other. He is frightened by some of the Shango rites he has witnessed, but impressed to learn that Marie is a “Reine”, a queen, in her community. 

For Jean, though, this is all superstition and ignorance, a regression she can’t believe Hugh wants. “Why did big educated man go up there? To watch girls shaking?” He doesn’t respond to that last charge. The fault line in their marriage, in their culture, is clearly demarcated. Will they fall into it?

This is a totally engaging production, in a directorial debut by Kalungi Ssebandeke. It's no surprise to read that he has professional credits as an actor, writer and musician: he has a finely tuned ear for the nuanced musicality of the dialogue, which the cast rise to with knockabout energy, and has drawn engagingly physical performances from them too. A name to watch.

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