Theatre during Covid: The Colour Purple at The Curve Leicester

From the 16th of February to the March 16, Curve theatre in Leicester re-started its award-winning 2019 production, after a period of cancellation due to lockdown, with the release of “The Colour Purple- At Home”. 

Curve kindly offered free tickets to NHS and school staff across Leicester, Leicestershire and Birmingham as a thank you for the hard work that those individuals have contributed during the pandemic. It’s no doubt that this gesture was appreciated by theatre lovers who needed a deserving break.

Based on the novel by Alice Walker, The Colour Purple isn’t a light-hearted story. Knowing that the story explores themes of racism, sexism, and violence, I mentally braced myself before watching as I was expecting a serious and heavy performance. However, I was surprised to find that this was not the case as the musical began with the bright song “Opening” that grabbed my attention with an upbeat, bouncy piano melody. The vocals that followed were impressive and it was clear that the musical talents of the cast were purposefully shown-off from the start. The actor’s voices blended to create gorgeous harmonies, and the range of their voices were showcased in the song’s powerful ending. I could tell that despite it’s dark themes, the musical numbers would function to raise the story’s tone. 

The lighting (Ben Cracknell) also gave a warm feel to the show as large bulbs were positioned in vertical lines that surround the stage and cast an orange glow onto the actors. Along with Alex Lowde’s simple costumes of sepias, creams, and yellows- a unified and pleasant visual was created that welcomed the eye into its warm ambience. I think that this unity was essential in the performance as the actors were two meters apart and the colour palette tied them all together in a visual way, rather than physical. 

Covid created many barriers for the production. According to the director, Tinuke Craig, “our new version of The Colour Purple is in the round, and without our set and most of our props. All we have are the stage, the words and the story.” “The round” references the circular stage used.

It provided a minimalistic style and the shape worked effectively to centre my attention on the action. There was also a revolving floor feature which made Mark Smith’s simplified choreography dynamic to watch as the characters could still move around the stage without getting too close to each other.  

The creators adapted the show so well that I didn’t notice that the actors were socially distancing until halfway through the performance. It became an issue, however, in a romantic duet between Celie (T’shan Williams) and Shug (Carly Mercedes Dyer), where they were supposed to kiss.

In the build-up, a close up shot of the actors was layered on the screen creating a double exposure effect. I think this was an editing choice to compensate for the lack of physical connection, but I thought it had a cheesy effect and broke the immersion of the performance. Nevertheless, it was interesting to see a cinematic effect within a theatre performance and I appreciated that they experimented with new opportunities that a virtual show can give.  

The musical stayed true to most aspects of the original novel and I think they did a great job in adapting the romantic relationship between Celie and Shug on stage (a key detail that was ignored in Spielberg’s 1985 film version). This representation was important to Craig who stated, “Celie navigates being black in a white supremacist world, being a woman in a man’s world, poor in a capitalist world and queer in a world where that’s not even presented as a possibility for her […] We don’t take that responsibility lightly”. However, I think that the play didn’t represent the sexual and physical abuse that Celie had experienced by the hand of her father enough, as it was casually mentioned in off-hand comments that could be easily missed. While this important aspect of the novel is perhaps too censored, I can understand that during a pandemic a more upbeat show is appealing.  

As it was only assembled in ten days, Curve has adapted brilliantly to theatre’s current restrictions. With quality singing and acting, Alex Parker’s impressive score and light-hearted comedic moments, The Colour Purple was a great live performance and worth the watch. I hope that other theatres follow this route and until we can return to theatre in person, I will be keeping my eye on Curve especially for live events.

By Helen Barber

Feature image: Curve Leicester

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