The play is based on the life stories of two of the most remarkable characters involved in slavery in the 19th century. John Newton, captain of a slave ship, reformed, got religion and wrote such great hymns as Amazing Grace – so the story goes, anyway, but in fact, he carried on slaving for years after his conversion. Olaudah Equiano, Newton’s younger contemporary, was an Ibo captured by slavers in Nigeria. Hard-working and intelligent, he managed to buy his freedom and became celebrated for his love of learning, his autobiography and his campaigning against the slave trade.
Murray Watts’ play alternates and overlaps the lives of Newton and Equiano, using their own writings as a factual base, but Equiano is the moral centre. His interrogation of Newton’s narrative and motives, at the heart of the play in many ways, lacks focus in the first half, but is tighter after the interval. The scenes of the two men’s lives are vividly animated by an ensemble of six actors, all black, with the telling result that our usual all-white view of the abolition campaign is exploded by an African William Wilberforce!
Israel Oyelumade as Equiano, is superb, full of dignity, humour and intelligence, while Roger Alborough, though inclined to generalised bluster, brings out Newton’s agony of conscience well. The members of the versatile ensemble change character, dance and sing to great effect, with notable performances from Emmanuella Cole, in a range of parts from Equiano’s sister to Newton’s wife, and Rex Obano as a naval officer, always poised wittily on the brink of parody.
Watts raises the question of slavery in the world today, whether we have the right to judge previous generations, without developing it to any great effect. The strength of the play lies in its powerful evocation of the suffering and hypocrisy of the slave trade. Paul Burbridge’s economical production is well served by Sean Cavanagh’s looming ship’s side of a set and a lighting plot by Ben Cracknell of extreme contrasts of light and darkness. Remarkably Ben Okafor, skilfully deploying a whole range of musical influences from African dance to English hymns, manages to restrain himself from using the familiar Amazing Grace.
- Ron Simpson (reviewed at the Theatre Royal, York)