Sabrina Mahfouz’s adaptation of Malorie Blackman’s young adult novel is an intricate yet accessible depiction of a racially divided world that might have been.
I don’t normally start a review with a spoiler warning, but if you’ve already decided to see this play and you don’t know about the Noughts and Crosses series, I advise you to stop reading now. Pilot Theatre advertised this play as tale of forbidden love in a world of racial tension, but they deliberately omitted one important bit of information about what sort of world this is. The revelation comes in the opening scene – it won’t spoil the scene, let alone the rest of the play, if you know what it is, but it’s better if you don’t.
However, a review of Noughts and Crosses that doesn’t tell you what the Noughts and Crosses are is like a review of The Matrix that doesn’t tell you what the Matrix is. I would not be possible to talk about the many merits of both the story and the adaptation without telling you what Pilot Theatre isn’t telling you; so, in the style of the news just before match of the day, if you want to find out in the play, look away now.
So the play begins with the birth of a child, Sephy. It’s a joyous occasion, with a black family and white family united in celebration of this birth. One small detail that would normally be overlooked: the way the families are dressed. Kamal and Jasmine are clearly wealthy, Ryan and Meggie a poorer class, and it quickly becomes clear that this is not an anomaly, but the normal state of things. The black people, known as “the Crosses” have the vote, all the positions of power, and all the best jobs – whilst the white people, known as “the Noughts”, were held in slavery not so long ago and still hold the bottom rungs of society, very much like Southern USA in the Jim Crow era. And that is not the only parallel. Thirteen years later, Ryan and Meggie’s son Callum becomes one of the few Noughts to attend a school for Crosses. But whilst in the real world the USA has a sort-of defence that it ended segregation of its own accord, in this parallel reality the government is being dragged into this kicking and screaming through pressure from the not-quite-so-racist rest of the world.
Unsurprisingly, plenty of Crosses don’t take kindly to sharing their school with noughts, and definitely don’t to kindly to Sephy’s fraternisation with Callum. Yes, one thing this alternate world has in common with ours is that the one thing racists hate more than other races is inter-racial relationships. But Sephy and Callum’s forbidden romance won’t feature much in the story until it comes to a head at the end. Before then, it’s a plot thread that drives a depiction of the world around them. And there’s a lot of parallels between their Jim Crows and ours.The stereotyping of the Noughts as inherently savage is ruthlessly peddled by those wanting to keep them in their place. Police, judge and juries and made entirely of Crosses and no-one questions it. And – possibly the worst stain in post-Confederacy America’s history – consensual relationships are routinely re-branded as rape.
Blackman’s book is far from a simplistic society of haves and have nots though. All the privileges in her life doesn’t stop Jasmine’s life falling apart and taking to the bottle when her husband takes a mistress. On both sides of the divide casual prejudice is spouted about the other half, but it’s often from otherwise decent people – when you’ve been raised your whole life to believe this, it shouldn’t be too much of a surprise. And Callum’s family is divided on the subject of the Liberation Militia, who seek equality through bombings, but as the situation deteriorates his family is driven into their arms one by one, that too is understandable. Only Kamal proves irredeemable: he is Home Secretary with eyes on the grand prize, and he ruthlessly exploits the escalating violence in pursuit of this goal.
But there is another important strand of the story, and that is the humanity. In spite of the Powers That Be trying their hardest to perpetuate the Us and Them mentality, there are times in the story when Noughts and Crosses alike relate to each other as fellow human beings. Noughts and Crosses is the first book in a series of four; whilst I haven’t read the rest of the story, I got the impression from the play that it will talking, not bombs, that the Kamal’s government should fear the most.
One thing that is easy to forget is that adapting a book for the stage is not easy. 200 pages is about as much as you can fit in a two-hour play before you have to contemplate major cuts, and at 454 this book is way over the line. But, on the whole, Mahfouz makes the right calls with the stage adaptations. It’s easy to follow the play, and everything that matters in the story stays in. There were a couple of small details that I had to go back and check later, but the closest this comes to losing people who haven’t read the book is doubling up Ryan with the shady mole in the Liberation Militia – that was probably unavoidable for a cast of eight, but for a while I was trying to work out whether or not they were meant to be the same person.
I am used to Pilot Theatre’s excellent staging of its plays, and this is one, directed by artistic director Ester Richardson, is no exception. The one downside to being under Pilot’s banner is that I end up comparing this to The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner and Brighton Rock. The much plainer set here, perfectly fitting though it is here, just can’t top the near-unbeatable sets of those plays. But Simon Kenny still has some tricks up his sleeve that makes the setting memorable. Most striking on all are the red noughts and crosses signs that flash up whenever the sinister power of the state comes into play.
There was only one decision I wasn’t convinced by, and this might be an unpopular opinion because I know Pilot Theatre feels strongly about it, but … I wouldn’t have treated this as a response to Brexit. Admirable though the aim is of trying to highlight racism in contemporary society, the Jim Crow era is a very different beast to the rise of Trump and co, where there’s a much bigger overlap between racism and the panic over Muslims and immigrants. It’s complicated enough job to analyse the similarities and differences between the two as it is – to work this into a play with a fictionalised setting seems next to impossible. There were only a few references of this kind; some worked okay, others were shoehorned. If it was me, I would have forgotten about trying to draw these parallels and just work of the level intended by the book. Trump and Brexit can wait for another play.
But we should not underestimate the power of this story. Noughts and Crosses may have a message that isn’t any more contentious than “racism and segregation bad”, but what this does so well is examine why. How otherwise decent people can believe the worst about people not that different to themselves. And there could be few better groups to take this on than Pilot Theatre. Many companies have impressed me with their stage adaptations, but few have done it as consistently as they do. The only outstanding question: could they do any of the sequels? Sequels in theatre are difficult, but with the story set up so well for the follow-on, might this be an exception. The full epic wouldn’t be easy, but if anyone can do it, Pilot Theatre can.
Noughts and Crosses performs at Northern Stage on the 7th – 11th May.