Lolita Chakrabarti’s thoughtful new play ‘Hymn’ was conceived with a live audience in mind. However, Blanche McIntyre’s recent production filmed under COVID-safe, socially distanced conditions at the Almeida Theatre, initially live-streamed and then shown this weekend on Sky Arts works perfectly in communicating the relationship between two men, Gill (Adrian Lister) and Benny (Danny Sapani).
The play centres only on Gill and Benny, and opens with the funeral of Gill’s Father, Gus. Gill delivers the eulogy. Benny is also at the funeral. The two men meet, not at all by chance, and even though they are from vastly different social backgrounds, with different education and different prospects, this opens a course of events that draw the two into what becomes a powerful and emotionally charged friendship. A line in the play describes this relationship perfectly as “sympathetic resonance”, a harmonic phenomenon wherein a formerly passive vibrating body responds to external vibrations to which it has a harmonic likeness. The two men form a brotherly bond that only men can understand.
At times, ‘Hymn’ makes your heart sing, with soulful vocals paired with rousing dance beats. This is a play with music, and at some points features a few “dad-dance breaks”, and Lister and Sapani are truly brilliant in equal measure. Strong, agile, and dynamic in their stage presence, they both take socially distancing performance in their stride as if it is the most natural thing in the world. They appear unphased by the distance, using it only to their advantage in the portrayal of their emotionally distant but flawlessly harmonised characters.
McIntyre’s staging is minimalistic and sparce, with a few essential props and furniture pieces. Lighting design by Prema Mehta is also simplistic, using contrasting light and shade to emphasise attractively the rollercoaster that is the human condition. There is nothing fancy about the production at all, and that’s because it does not call for more than what is necessary. Anything else would simply detract from the script.
Globally, men generally die younger than women. Men’s desire to appear invulnerable and in control, their unwillingness to talk about or acknowledge their problems or seek help from others contributes to this statistic. ‘Hymn’ is about those things that make men vulnerable. It is a play about the male perspective. It depicts with precision the tender nature of male friendship, of brotherly connection but also the chasm that can appear when men struggle to connect emotionally. ‘Hymn’ opens discussions about masculine norms discouraging men from expressing or examining their feelings and working through the pain, in turn exacerbating feelings of hopelessness.
Although ‘Hymn’ is not typical in its styling or plot structure, there is a sense of familiarity about the two men and the words they speak (or do not speak), and that is because it’s a story about the men that we all know, our Fathers, Brothers or Sons. Because of that, it is a massively important and culturally significant piece that will leave you wanting to pick up the phone to simply say “I love you”.
Reviewer: Alan Stuart Malin
Reviewed: 20th April 2021
North West End UK Rating: ★★★★