A great play has a certain kind of self-made intensity, as if its players are conjuring up a story from thin air and keeping that plate spinning around the single stage. It leaves you dizzy.
Directing August Wilson’s eponymous play, Denzel Washington tries to capture that claustrophobic momentum, setting the action almost exclusively in the backyard of Troy and Rose Maxson (played by Washington, and Viola Davis). He shrinks Troy’s world to these precious square yards of freedom, echoing how the rest of the world is closed off to him. As he fiercely declaims time and again, so much was denied him as a result of growing up black in America in the first half of the 20th century. He could’ve been a contender, a baseball legend, but the Major Leagues didn’t admit black players back then. He could’ve been a driver on his waste collection route, but the colour of his skin stopped him.
Or maybe they’re just more of his tall stories. As his wife Rose counters, he was simply too old for the Major Leagues and grouse as he might, Troy doesn’t actually have a driver’s licence. Their dynamic is key to the success of Fences, creating a believable depiction of a marriage that has survived through thick and thin. Denzel has charisma to burn as the fast-talking, yarn-weaving Troy, and Viola is the perfect foil with her no-nonsense loyalty.
When the actors click, Fences sings, but too often this adaptation feels hamstrung by its commitment to its stage origins. As a director Washington has a poor grasp of pacing, offering relentless mind-numbing chat with little variation or breathing space. It’s a compelling enough story, adapted by Wilson himself before his death, but a bit more invention and craft would’ve helped it to fit the screen far better.
CAST: Denzel Washington, Viola Davis, Stephen Henderson, Jovan Adepo, Russell Hornsby, Mykelti Williamson
DIRECTOR: Denzel Washington
WRITER: August Wilson (screenplay, based on his play Fences)
SYNOPSIS: A working-class African-American father tries to raise his family in the 1950s, while coming to terms with the events of his life.