The latest in the RSC's series of new works, Nick Stafford's play deals with what one of the characters calls "the small print of history". Debra Mercer, a young woman from a wealthy home researches the family tree. All genealogical innocence at first, but as the play unfolds and the guilty secrets mount, there are some even more unsavoury revelations.
The action takes place over in 1799, 1899 and the present day, and Gemma Bodinetz's direction shifts the play swiftly between the different eras and settings of a modern day physic garden, its previous incarnation as a rundown cottage and South Africa.
Luminosity is an ambitious play, dealing with, amongst other things, historical interpretation, moral guilt for past misdemeanours, and racism. On the whole, Stafford succeeds in knitting these disparate themes together, but there are some awkwardly written scenes: an elaborate metaphor comparing women with diamonds is stretched for far too long and Jude Akuwudike's Saul Mercer spouting some pre-Marxist philosophising seems strangely anachronistic. There's also an attempt to introduce a supernatural element into the mix. Daniel Cerqueira's Quaker exorcist is highly inappropriate and seems to have come from a different play, and the ghostly appearance of various shades of the Mercer family is not as effective as it could have been.
The story also ends all too abruptly. Having raised the issues, Stafford appears unwilling to take sides. Are we indeed responsible for an ancestor's ill deeds? If so, how should we compensate? When Debra says redress should be paid, her mother asks to whom. It's a question that's left unanswered at the end.
The cast is very strong, particularly Niamh Linehan and Tom Smith as the late-Victorian couple surmounting various obstacles until the tragic ending. Karen Bryson's Debra is nicely judged, and John McEnery as the guilt-haunted progenitor of the dynasty is also very effective.
For all its faults, this is an interesting play. The RSC is to be commended for its continuing endeavours in presenting new works.