Whilst the male-dominated play is the lingua franca of the theatre world, Hymn is refreshingly non-conventional in its artistic vernacular. A study of male friendship presented through the female gaze of writer, Lolita Chakrabarti and director Blanche McIntyre, it has been live streamed by the Almeida to widespread critical acclaim.
The story centres on Gil (Adrian Lester) and Benny (Danny Sapani). Meeting for the first time at their father’s funeral, the two men find kinship in discussing the perils of modern masculinity, parenting, and their love for music.
Throughout the play, Lester and Sapani complement and contrast one another with playful ease, each offering a performance that balances vulnerability and charisma to a pitch-perfect degree. Though individual, they are brilliant, demonstrating staggering emotional depth and flexibility. It is in moments of interaction that the quality of their performances becomes most obvious.
Their forays into musical episodes, too, are thoughtfully executed in joyful, reflective, and confessional approaches. An especially striking moment is Sapani’s opening rendition of Lean on Me, though the song choice is slightly on the nose in its expression of the play’s principal theme.
In terms of visual design, there is a clear consideration of the principle “less is more”. The lighting, conceptualised by Prema Mehta, is instinctive and particular, whilst Miriam Buether’s staging and costuming is appropriately sparse. There is very little to distract outside of Lester and Sapani’s performances, which serves to emphasise the intimate atmosphere of the work.
Robia Milliner’s movement direction ensures that social distancing is achieved in way that is refreshingly unobtrusive, and that by no means limits the ability of the actors to express the closeness of their characters’ friendship. This is further aided by the sensitivity with which the live production is translated to a screen format with changes of the camera’s perspective fluidly assisting the arc of the narrative.
The joyousness, tragedy, and humanity of Hymn generates an atmosphere that could only be benefited by an audience’s presence. Though this is not the fault of the practitioners who developed the production, it remains that the play is imbued with an underlying sense of mourning: for the emotional fullness that live, in-person productions offer.
That being said, overall, Hymn should be an essential part of the lockdown theatre canon. It is a synthesis of rich performances and intuitive design that broaches challenging themes with consideration and insight. Anyone who does watch it will be left singing its praises from their rooftops (or living rooms).
Photograph by Marc Brenner/Almeida Theatre