With great excitement I went to see SOUL, a play by Roy Williams, that is playing at Hackney Empire until July 3rd.
To begin I must write that the acting was solid. Especially impressive performances were offered by the two actors who played Gaye: Keenan Munn-Francis as the adolescent Gaye, and Nathan Ives-Moiba as the adult Gaye. The actors didn’t sing often, but when they did, they captivated everyone in the audience, leaving us all wanting for more. And the gospel music was piercing, as was its timing.
Less impressive were some directorial choices. There is a moment in the play where Marvin Gay Sr. is caught wearing women’s clothing and a wig, and the entire scene was set up for comedy, including the character – unnecessarily – stripping so that the audience sees his wearing a bustier and slip. In some sense the scene was successful considering most of the audience laughed; some even continued to do so several minutes later. The humorous bit was lost on me.
There was also a decision by the director, or perhaps the playwright, to emphasize a general feeling of sympathy for both of Gaye’s parents. Marvin Gay Sr. shot his son in cold blood and, at least in public, showed little remorse. He was known to be an abusive father, both physically and emotionally. Due to the playwright choosing to try to cover so much of Gaye’s life, the severity of this abuse comes short. The audience even chuckled during one scene where Gaye stands up to his father as a teenager and is consequently kicked out of the house. That is at least partially due to a lack of context. More importantly, Alberta Gay’s decision to stay with her husband over all the years of abuse and infidelity are illustrated without commentary which is highly problematic.
Of course any performance piece that takes on a legend such as Marvin Gaye creates high expectations that are almost impossible to match. SOUL is entertaining and offers a small glimpse into the life of one of the most influential musical artists of the 20th century.