Danny Sapani in Hymn. twitter.com/almeidatheatre

In line with the current lockdown, London’s Almeida Theatre chose to continue with their previously announced ‘socially distanced season’, albeit now with no audience present. Instead, Adrian Lester and Danny Sapani perform – two metres apart – to an empty house, in an immaculately-shot online world premiere of Lolita Chakrabarti’s Hymn. The tender two-hander sees Benny (Sapani) and Gil (Lester) attending their father’s funeral. Yet neither have met before. Gil discovers that the dad he has just eulogised fathered another son, only six weeks after him. He is no longer the youngest sibling, and an uneasy friendship is struck between the newfound brothers – a friendship that blossoms into a strong bond. The play considers a broad range of themes, which gives it a truth but also a lack of focus. Chakrabarti has said her main aim was to write a play about platonic male love, and Hymn is certainly a love story of sorts, yet one that briefly takes in social justice, protest, intergenerational tension, and environmental catastrophe on the way.

“Chakrabarti’s script is rife with occasional moments which beautifully express the subtle yet sweeping ways men can support each other. ”

The play probes masculinity, and its intersections with race, though these contexts are largely subtextual. Benny and Gil start training at the gym together (Gil couldn’t stand the ‘sandalwood and sage’ calm of yoga.) In one session, Gil recounts his frustration with a woman who blocked the road ahead of him. With cars lining up behind him, he is unable to reverse, but she refuses to. He tries to break the impasse by getting out of the car to talk to her. But when he asks her to move, she rolls up the window, saying ‘I’m worried you’re going to hit me’. Chakrabarti leaves us to untangle an encounter with a clear race, gender and class context. The woman’s response is evidently racially coded, yet we have also seen Gil’s amiable demeanour slip in a second earlier in the play – when a slight delay in a coffee shop sees him snapping at service staff ‘you’re not too good for this job’. Gil’s entitlement is evident throughout the play, and once again he feels he and his BMW – his ‘BM’, as he calls it – have right of way. All the more troubling is the way that Gil and Benny’s friendship blossoms in boxing practice when Benny suggests Gil imagines he’s pummelling ‘that woman in that car’, rather than a punchbag.

The characters are drawn with a compelling nuance, Chakrabarti suggesting that male camaraderie can grow from both mutual hate figures, and shared passions. The two men become truly at ease with each other through singing and dancing. The play is filled with these joyful interludes – though they are far from mere transitions. Comfort and love emerge as they dance and sing together. The first song is a sombre rendition of ‘Lean on Me’ – Lester playing the piano in a soulful duet with Sapani. Later, they dance with abandon – reliving the adolescences they never shared. The bedrock of their relationship is a supportive masculinity of mutual affirmation. Chakrabarti’s script is rife with occasional moments which beautifully express the subtle yet sweeping ways men can support each other. When Benny’s son Louis is getting in trouble with the police, Gil tells Benny: ‘You’re his parachute – you’ve just got to wait for him to pull the cord’.

Hymn’s conception of masculinity is all about facades”

Yet Chakrabarti identifies potential dangers too; Hymn’s conception of masculinity is all about facades. Gil has a big business idea to sell high-end designer stationery with matching clothes. You never really get a sense of how Gil has moved into this industry from running a chain of dry-cleaners, and the idea itself works better as a stage metaphor than it would do as a practical business venture. But the idea does fit Gil perfectly. His sharp-suited professionalism belies a deep insecurity that he has never lived up to his older sisters’ successes. His air of charm vanishes when reprimanding serving staff for tardiness, and when things go wrong for him, he loses all his enthusiasm and resolve, lapsing into self-pity. The play’s conclusion feels both structurally inevitable and slightly hollow. When Benny reveals he has accrued £10,000 in savings, we sense that the money is likely in jeopardy. When things spin out of control, the narrative beats are formally expected, yet the play also withholds the true depth of Gil’s desperation from us – making the drastic ending a slightly jarring surprise. But maybe this is a fitting gesture. In a play about facades, Gil’s pain remains hidden from us until it is too late.

Adrian Lester in Hymn. twitter.com/almeidatheatre

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At the play’s end, both characters declare their love for each other, though neither has managed to tell the other one to their face. Hymn ends where it begins, in church – a place earlier described as the only place where people’s expressions of feeling can be ‘complete’. For Chakrabarti, masculinity is, in part, characterised by difficulties of self-expression. As Benny suggests, in the closing monologue: it isn’t so much a problem of concealment, as of how to express yourself. Benny quotes Miles Davis, saying ‘sometimes it takes a long time to sound like yourself’. Here, it even takes someone else’s words for Benny to sound like himself. Yet the staging suggestively proffers another place where ‘complete’ expression is possible: the theatre. The gorgeous lighting design coupled with the distinctive brickwork at the back of the Almeida’s stage evokes the space of a recently built church. The play itself expresses the unspoken love that hides beneath the surface of many male friendships. As Hymn gently suggests, perhaps the possibility of expressing such tender, complicated feelings is what makes theatre near-unique. Though the script is sometimes unfocused and easy to anticipate, excellent performances elevate the play to a beautiful expression of the value of friendship – and theatre, even in an online, socially distanced form.