Sky Arts review: Hymn (Almeida Theatre)
Ivan Radford | On 04, Mar 2021
“Music is silence, sound and time.” That’s the wisdom passed down from father to son in Hymn, Lolita Chakrabarti’s sensational two-hander. The play, which is staged and filmed at the Almeida Theatre, acknowledges the strange circumstances of its creation from the off, as its two leading men – Adrian Lester’s Gilbert and Danny Sapani’s Benny – walk on to stage separately, sporting face masks. Once the masks are removed, they spend the rest of the 90-minute drama not coming within two metres of each other – and that distance in itself strikes a powerful note.
The two men cross paths just after Gilbert has laid his dad to rest, delivering a moving eulogy at a tiny funeral. It’s immediately clear that they’re cut from two different clothes, Gil a middle-class, successful man with a softly spoken confidence, and Benny a gruff working-class family man with a grounded sense of perspective. But there are things that connect them too, from ambitions and family betrayals to their individual experiences of being Black British men – one of their early conversations sees Gil recount an incident in which a woman considers he’s hostile and angry, even when he’s speaking calmly and politely.
And yet these kind of experiences are only discussed elliptically and in passing; Chakrabarti’s shrewdly observed script nails the way that male friendships can be rooted in conversations about anything but feelings or problems, as they focus their exchanges on day-to-day practicalities and other detached matters.
Adrian Lester and Danny Sapani are exceptional, superbly conveying the way their trust, affection, power and respect shifts and grows throughout their relationship – one that’s intimate and intense in its plutonic sincerity. Lester’s delivery is impeccable, moving from faintly condescending and composed to increasingly unguarded as they get to know each other more, while Sapani’s initially on edge presence settles into something warmer and even protective. As much as there are unspoken questions of loyalty and hurt that sit in those two metres between them, there’s also a palpable sense of joy that leaps across the gulf – particularly when we witness them trying on clothes (part of Gilbert’s new business venture) or share in a love of music.
A standout sequence sees the duo dancing to Papa Was a Rolling Stone and dressing up, reliving memories that they didn’t share at the time but might as well have – the sheer happiness as Lester cuts loose and Sapani cheers him on is a sensationally choreographed and infectiously delightful piece of theatre. It’s a pointed contrast to the scenes in Benny’s gym, where Gilbert unleashes frustration and tension through physical exercise.
Blanche McIntyre directs all this with a tremendous sense of space and proximity, backed up by a gorgeously simple set that uses lighting to complement the layers of movement and melody that hold this chamber piece together. The result is a poignant meditation on fathers and sons, on leaving behind legacies and coming to terms with what friendship and brotherhood means both now and in the future. It’s no coincidence that we first encounter these two men together as they sing a duet of Lean on Me – a heart-poundingly beautiful moment of harmony amid tragedy. Music, we’re told, is silence, sound and time. Hymn plays all three without missing a beat.
Hymn is available on Sky Art from 9pm on Sunday 18th April 2021. Don’t have Sky? You can also stream it live and on-demand legally on NOW, for £9.99 a month, with no contract and a 7-day free trial.