This is a bold move for the National Theatre. For some time the company has had to put up with criticism that it hasn t invested heavily in new drama and that it s rarely looked beyond these shores.
Rita Dove s play, the first by this acclaimed poet, ostensibly is about a cotton plantation in the mid-nineteenth century. In fact, that s the pretext for a reworking of Oedipus. The plot is simple: Saskia Reeves slave-owning Amalia has a fling with a slave, Hector. The resulting child, Augustus (well played by Peter de Jersey), is given away to prevent a scandal. Hector retreats to the swamp to kill snakes. Twenty years later, Amalia has an affair with Augustus, who subsequently kills Hector (not knowing he was his father). Eventually, as the slaves rebel, she kills herself.
Sounds familiar? But The Darker Face of the Earth is only nominally a reworking of the Oedipus. In fact, that s where the play is at it weakest. Dove does tend to lay on the allusions with a trowel - on learning the truth about Augustus s parentage, Amalia cries “Better that you had no eyes to see with”. Yes, we get the point.
As you might expect from a leading poet, it s the language that captivates. The play is partly in verse and the choral singing has a very powerful effect. But the play rushes to its conclusion, it s almost as if Dove was in a hurry to finish it off – by the end, there is very little steam left.
But James Kerr s atmospheric direction and the strong performances from Reeves and de Jersey ensure that the tension is maintained. There are also sympathetic performances from Cyril I Nri as the outcast Hector and Tanya Moodie as Phebe, the woman who loves Augustus.
The real themes of the play are the sense of community that the slaves have and the longing for the old ways. When Hector, the only one who still speaks ‘African , dies, one of the characters wails. “Who will speak the old words now?” And that longing for a lost Eden hangs over them throughout.
This isn t a play about emancipation and revolt – it s a love story and it s about a human being s fight for dignity. And although it at times seems stilted, this is a powerful and moving piece.