Monday, 10 March 2008

Guns and ganja

Guns and ganja at the Barbican for The Harder They Come, the Theatre Royal Stratford East’s stage musical version of Perry Henzell’s 1972 film featuring Jimmy Cliff. The guns weren’t real but some of the ganja was. Either that or the Barbican backstage crew can produce some remarkably good sensory effects, with the sweet smell of the sacred ’erb wafting across the audience from the stage.

‘Fifteen minute ganja break,’ announced the Rasta ‘trader’ with the monster spliff at the interval – and at least a few of the audience made their way to the Barbican lakeside to take him up on his suggestion.

The Harder They Come is an exhilarating reggae stomp through the Jamaica of a half-century ago, loosely based around the true story of outlaw anti-hero Ivanhoe ‘Rhygin’ (bad, hot) Martin, who died in a shootout with police in 1948. The original film, by a (white) Jamaican director with an all-Jamaican cast, was the first full-length feature film to be made on the island focusing on the realities of life for its inhabitants; it is widely credited with taking reggae music onto a world stage. The Barbican musical, which runs until 5 April, is blessed with an energetic and talented cast and two of the sweetest, most soulful singers performing in London today, in Rolan Bell as Ivan and Joanna Francis as Elsa, his girlfriend.

There’s no doubt where your sympathies are meant to lie in this tale. Ivan may have shot two policemen but it’s him who’s the hero who’d ‘rather be a free man in my grave, than living as a puppet or a slave’, in the words of the song. A Caribbean Robin Hood, give or take a bit of ganja.

But does it glamourise guns, which seems to be a question you are required to answer about any black creative project that features or mentions the things these days?

No more so than (for example) westerns is the obvious answer, a point that the production makes implicitly by screening a particularly bloody Spaghetti western bar fight and shootout during the ganja break.

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