When Elizabeth Inchbald began work on The Massacre in October 1792 the news of the September Massacres in revolutionary Paris in which around 1,200 people were killed had just filtered through to London. The new play was one of her adaptations, a French drama of 1772 by Mercier about the St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre two hundred years before. Colin Blumenau’s staging is its European professional première; Inchbald withdrew it before production because the subject and its newly contemporary context were just too politically sensitive.
We live in a period where massacres of the innocent and swathes of genocide are all too familiar. Blumenau’s production rams this home, in my opinion unnecessarily. He takes us to a hot country somewhere and not very long ago, with political upheaval destroying an age-old balance of race and religion. The cast is multi-racial and the parallels with Bosnia and Ruanda, Belfast and Baghdad are thrust in our faces, just as though none of us had the wit to work all this out for ourselves. So the wise judge Abdi Gouhad is a Muslim, the mob leader Russell Simpson a Northern Irish paramilitary, and the central trio of intended victims – father, son and son’s wife are Indian and African.
The acting is very good, with Maya Sondhi particularly effective as the Wife. Her early scenes with her father-in-law, played by Madhav Sharma, show that Inchbald wrote rounded characters, however hard Blumenau tries to turn them back into types. Their dilemma, when the reality of what is happening outside their comfortable home, has all the fractured urgency of real life, including the moment when Eugene Washington as the husband has to explain that any escape will be hindered if she tries to take luggage with her.
Their two friends, Eamonn O’Dwyer and Emma Connell are powerless to do any thing but react as the outside rabble arrives to claim its latest prey. O’Dwyer also acts as a sort of prologue to and interlude between the three acts; this would be more effective if one could actually make out his words. Those of Inchbald are worth the hearing and there are some phrases which resonate, particularly when merely thinking is equated with actually doing – the mob leader’s “the neighbour who thinks differently from me, I am his enemy” and the judge’s description of justice as “liberty joined with peace and charity”.
Chiara Stephenson’s set proves that you can dress a stage just with simple pillars and billowing gauze – and still make an impact. It works equally well for the second play in this double-bill, a variation on the theme by Jonathan Lichenstein called The Requiem. This starts as an 18th century comedy of manners with two girls about to receive their admirers, recently returned from a voyage of exploration somewhere in the South Seas. But the spice they have gathered has a bitter taste; it’s tainted with blood.
Robert Price’s performers are all drama students at the University of Essex. Rachel Nolson is bossy Harriet and Leanne Ocean is Georgette, all fluttery in her quest for detail. This of course comes with far more facts than she really wants. Rebecca Giles is the naval captain and Rhiannon Maile the commander. The costumes have an anarchic air to them – skeleton hoops, modern shorts rather than knee breeches and so on – which suits the mood admirably. The dialogue is nicely pastiche until the arrival of Magdalena Kleszoz as one of the dispossessed – with a mission.