The logistics must have been a nightmare. Simon Schama’s massive and detailed history of the African slaves who fought with the soldiers of George III in the American War of Independence is daunting enough. Then Caryl Phillips, who has not worked in the theatre for twenty years, set about writing a play based on the book. And finally the Bristol Old Vic, originally a partner in the enterprise, was closed down.
Still, Goold has once again come up with some high quality goods. The slaves who fought were promised land and liberty but the deal went wrong and thousands of them were transported to the harsh climate of Nova Scotia and thence to the new colony of Sierra Leone, thanks to the intervention of some committed British abolitionists.
In his book, Schama reproduces Zoffany’s portrait of the Sharp family in the National Portrait Gallery, intently playing on musical instruments and somehow striking patriotic poses at the same time. Granville Sharp was a leading abolitionist and more or less founded the Sierra Leone settlement single-handedly. In the picture, he is wise, elderly, reflective. On the stage, Michael Matus plays him with real verve and energy.
The music of a British salon is contrasted with the chants of the slaves, pulling on their ropes and straining at the leash as Laura Hopkins’ platform stage rises thrillingly to suggest movement, upheaval and cramped living conditions. The book has the scope and atmosphere of Thomas Kenneally’s Our Country’s Good, or Robert Hughes’ The Fatal Shore, similar tales of slavery and transportation, the first adapted well to the theatre by Out of Joint, and Goold’s production, is a worthy companion piece.
The cast is impassioned in tooth and claw, from Peter de Jersey’s slave rabble-rouser and Mark Jax’s drunken colonial agent right through to Miranda Colchester’s cut-glass aristocrat and Ed Hughes’ engagingly decent and quietly determined reformer, John Clarkson. Patrick Robinson makes a dignified, tragic figure of Thomas Peters, a settler whose arraignment is staged like a scene in The Crucible, and Dawn Hope and Wunmi Mosaku lead some glorious musical resistance.
Once again, the sound design of composer Adam Cork is of a breathtakingly high standard, and the show has some amazing work from Lorna Heavey on video projections of sea and snowscapes, and from Liz Ranken on the highly muscular dance routines.
- Michael Coveney