Plays, of course, are meant to be seen and not read, but it’s not always possible to see every play. They are not complete on the page, certainly in contemporary theatre where plays can be more collaboratively made than ever before. However, it encourages us (and hopefully others) to read more widely. For the third year, here is our #ReadaPlayaWeek initiative. And, as achieved in 2015, we shall try to choose 26 male playwrights and 26 female playwrights for our play choices.
Week 4: Bola Agbaje’s Gone Too Far! (2007)
Reading reviews of the London transfer of Anna Jordan’s play Yen at the Royal Court Upstairs earlier this week, I was surprised to read Matt Trueman’s criticism that the play was ‘as authentic a chicken nugget’ (cue flashbacks to Pomona). Trueman felt that the play over-simplified its prognosis of the boys’ problems without further looking at societal causes. Michael Billington, on the other hand, praised the play but argued that the sink estate setting was as much of a cliché in contemporary drama as French windows in the 1940s.
These points were in mind when reading Agbaje’s first play Gone Too Far!, which also played at the Royal Court Upstairs. The sink estate setting is a crucible where people of different backgrounds live; a backdrop which allows Agbaje to explore the conflict between and within racial and cultural groups. Reflecting on it, it’s not a play which diagnoses the larger problems of gang culture or asks questions on the prospects of those living on the estate (like the anger in Judy Upton’s Ashes and Sand, 1994). Nor does it interrogate character’s dual sense of national identity as much as something like Roy Williams’ Sing Yer Heart Our For The Lads (2002). But what’s remarkable about Agbaje’s play is how it explores the brothers’ complexity of feelings about their heritage and how they conflict with others.
Gone Too Far! sees two brothers (one who has only lived in Britain for a couple of months after growing up in Nigeria) go out to get some milk. On the way, they bump into ignorant police officers, an anxious shopkeeper and the conflicted Armani. Whereas Yemi (the younger brother) identifies himself as British, doesn’t know what his Nigerian name means and prefers the latest fashion trends, Ikudayisi dresses in traditional Nigerian garb, speaks Yoruba and has difficulty fitting in with a place where his politeness isn’t appreciated. However, although he tries to teach Yemi about the importance of heritage and how knowing you are is about knowing where you’re from, he also chooses to speak in a dodgy American accent in social situations. What’s authentic, then, about Gone Too Far! is its complexity when it comes to characters’ identity battles, often evoked intelligently through their use of language. From this, Abgaje asks us what we see as authentic. In the end, when Yemi chooses to wear traditional dress with his latest trainers, we see his new-found confidence in embracing his dual heritage.
Among this, Abgaje ensures that the other characters are also richly-drawn. We see Armani (played by Zawe Ashton in the original production) wanting to embrace her West Indies background even though she’s only lived with her white mum, and the Muslim shopkeeper who plays prayer music but also unabashedly covers his shop in England flags.
The ending may seem a bit too neat, but Gone Too Far! is compelling because it zips along and is character-driven.