In a neat preface to this dark tale writer Giles Terera points a playful finger at the post-‘take a knee’ audience who may feel they already know enough about the UK’s role in slavery. A confused manager in a modern bookshop can’t grasp that a paperback about slavery does not belong in the ‘African History’ section. He can’t get his head around the fact that Africans didn’t actually ‘take part’ in slavery. The book, of course, should be filed under ‘BRITISH History’.
This little vignette plunges us into a lively and visceral piece which focuses on a single horrific event, drilling in to the issues surrounding it and revealing the twisted morals, industrialised infrastructure and commonplace evil that underpinned this grotesque ‘trade’.
In 1781, a British slaver’s ship called the Zong ran short of drinking water while on route from Africa. To preserve rations, the Captain ordered the crew to take 132 men and women from the hold and throw them into the sea. Not content with that appalling murder the shipping company then claimed their insurers owed them the cost of their lost ‘cargo’. A refusal to pay up led to a court case which proved a lightning rod for abolitionists.
Terera takes the lead as Olaudah Equiano, a passionate but troubled protagonist who sets the plot running by alerting anti-slavery campaigner Granville Sharp to the upcoming case. From here on, the stage explodes with energy. A supremely multi-talented cast deliver captivating and spirited performances as they sweep through the layered story, becoming characters, chorus, vocalists, dancers, apparitions and even scenery (a brilliant piece of nimble set design sees the ensemble using pieces of driftwood to create many shifting backdrops from churches to offices, courts to ships interiors, street parties to jails).
Tom Morris (joint director along with Terera) brings energy and humanity to this monstrously dark tale by amplifying the boisterous, defiant spirit of its victims. It’s this delicate balance between light and shade – a theatre bounding with energy while digging into the depths of human depravity – that makes the production so jarring. But how else to skewer the bankers, bishops, industrialists, politicians, academics and law-makers who thrived on this wicked trade, than to celebrate the buoyant spirit and hyper humanity of their quarry? The more we engage with three strong women building trust and support while incarcerated in a dark prison ship, the more we see the animalistic ugliness of their captors. While the ‘chattels’ sing and dance, the ‘owners’ are brought into focus in all their drab, vile, egotistical ugliness.
The music – which almost becomes a character in the drama as it swoops around the action – is written by Sidiki Dembele who sits stage left surrounded by a plethora of percussion and string instruments. His score veers between thundering, percussive shocks to soothing, lyrical melodies as the tension rises and falls across the story.
With grateful thanks to Malcolm McGonigle for this review.