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10 Very British Theatre Problems (inspired by @SoVeryBritish)

Review: Notes From The Field, Royal Court - or the most affecting play I've seen for a long while

It was an uncomfortable, seat-squirming, horrifying joy to sit and experience this piece of theatre.

Anna Deavere Smith's Notes From The Field at the Royal Court is an important play and one that makes a lot of theatre feel inconsequential.

royal court notes from the field rev stanIt is a powerful, affecting piece devised and performed by Deavere Smith using the words of real people she has interviewed.

Each interview is linked thematically and explores the relationship between poverty, justice, education and racism in America but there are also clusters of interviews with people linked in various ways to particular events.


She has spoken to a broad range of people from eye-witnesses, workers within the legal system, politicians, human rights campaigners, academics, teachers and parents.

Slipping her bare feet into a pair of trainers or boots or shoes and shrugging on a jacket or scarf or top she transforms into the person whose words she speaks.

You don't need to have heard or seen a recording to realise that each interviewee is recreated through a carefully observed performance that captures their intonation, accent, verbal ticks and body language.

Deserves applause

That in itself deserves applause.

There are minimal props - occasionally a chair or a sofa or podium - instead images and videos are projected on the brick wall at the back of the stage to either set the scene or give visual context.

Prop and costume changes are conducted in full view, the wings of the stage exposed and somehow this reality check, this breaking of the fourth wall makes her performance all the more captivating.

Real life

For all the pretend this is real life, really happening - just as the words come from real people, real situations and real experiences.

The performance and narrative hold your attention, through every distressing, disturbing, horrifying, disbelieving and uplifting moment of it.

Royal Court wine rev stan instagramYes, uplifting because despite the difficult subject matter, the utter pitch black injustice, the depressing incredulity and inhumanity of what is being recalled there is a small glimmer of goodness, a glimmer of hope.

Deavere Smith's performance is so convincing that when she is a pastor delivering a sermon people called out 'Amen', a rousing speech got a spontaneous applause and at one point the entire audience was singing 'Amazing Grace'.

Almost too much

The juxtaposition of all those emotions is almost too much.

But Notes From The Field doesn't just stand out as an affecting and thought-provoking, powerful play, it stands out because it will make you question the purpose of theatre.

I hate it when the word 'urgent' is used to describe a play, it feels like a word that says more about the person choosing to use it than the play itself.

Important theatre

Which is why I prefer to describe Notes From The Field as an important piece of theatre, one which turns a mirror on modern society, morality and politics.

It is a narrative lecture in the best sense of both words - a valuable lesson that will leave you feeling emotionally pummelled and awaken something in your soul.


It was an uncomfortable, seat-squirming, horrifying joy to sit and experience.

There is no doubt it will be on my 'best of' list at the end of the year and I'm giving it six stars. Yes, six - if they can do it with hotels...

Do whatever you can to see it before it finishes this Saturday (June 23). Details on the Royal Court website.

Other plays you might like:

Julie, National Theatre - Vanessa Kirby plays and unravelling, modern rich-bitch.

My Name is Lucy Barton, Bridge Theatre - Laura Linney captivates in a solo performance for her West End debut

Translations, National Theatre - language, storytelling and leaving wanting more.

Killer Joe, Trafalgar Studios - The good and bad about Killer Joe