Ode to Leeds review – the poetry of youth – The Guardian

Smoke hazes the stage. Close to the audience, five microphones, ranged in a row, glisten in shafts of dim light. Centre stage, soft beams open a circle in darkness. Five teenagers gather: heads lower; arms reach around each other’s shoulders; bodies lean tautly inwards. Side lights shear a strip across the line of mics. The huddle unfurls. Two boys, two girls and a young woman step towards us, begin to speak the lines of a poem: solo, duo, trio, chorus. Language flows from them, words shaped through the movements of their bodies as much as by the rhythms of their tongues(and reshaped through gesture in this, one of two excellently signed performances). Verbal poetry resonates through the physical patterning of the staging – movement, lights, images, sounds and music – under James Brining’s direction.

Altogether, 16 poems thread the text, each as compelling as the first. Zodwa Nyoni’s new play isn’t really an ode to Leeds, although the city is powerfully present in the lives of the characters and vividly represented in fluid projections of maps, streets, flats and houses across the scaffolding-supported screens of the set. Rather, the subject of the ode is youth in the process of becoming, in particular, the youth of the spoken-word group that, as the programme puts it, “changed Nyoni’s own life”: Leeds Young Authors.

All five characters are poets (given intense life by mature performances). Their articulate self-awareness brings a depth of texture to their explorations of relationships, heritage, roots and identity. This aspect of the play is fascinating. However, the plot is fashioned along a narrative arc (involving a poetry slam competition in New York) that, overly deterministic, works against the dramatic potential of the situation. Nyoni’s strong stage voice, here, just misses finding its true theatrical form. 

At the West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds, until 1 July

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