On the 4th of May 1969, David Oluwale’s badly beaten body was heaved out of the River Aire. An immigrant from Lagos, Oluwale had spent the past twenty years as a Leeds resident, living homeless for the majority of that time.
Oladipo Agboluaje’s adaptation of Kester Aspden’s novel reimagines David’s life from the perspective of the internal enquiry that took place after his death. Inspector Perkins, cutely played by Ryan Early, pictures a man pursued ruthlessly by local police, constantly moved on and attacked for blood sport. We see Oluwale – his name mispronounced and misspelt –disintegrate in the midst of a society unable to see past the colour of his skin. Seeking a conviction for murder, Perkins is finally left to contend with a half justice as a verdict of assault is pronounced on his perpetrators.
Only towards its end does Agboluaje’s play admit even slightly of its own subjective bias. For ninety minutes, it tells its story convinced of its victims and its violators, discarding those elements that don’t fit its charges. Its final declaration of perspective, however, is too half-hearted to properly throw its previous events into doubt.
Nor does Agboluaje attempt to truly understand the society that casts Oluwale aside. His play reeks of liberal hindsight, presenting a racist, sexist, homophobic and anti-elitist Neanderthal of a community that sits in harsh conflict with the archetypal version of England that seduced Oluwale from his home country.
Whether right or wrong – and this depends entirely on the perspective from which you approach the work – Agboluaje’s over-empathetic position saps much of the drama and flattens the action.
The Hounding of David Oluwale might make good television. Here it appears repetitive and over-long: the stage-violence lacks real punch and the city of Leeds is consciously painted rather than appearing as background. Despite a commanding central performance from Daniel Francis, Dawn Walton’s confused direction leads to a jumbled ensemble that wavers from caricature to sympathetic naturalism.
“Pick your battles,” advises David’s mother before he leaves Lagos. In presenting an acceptable modern perspective on history, Agboluaje has certainly followed it.