This play is only part of the story. The central character Olaudah Equiano (the leading 18th century black campaigner for the abolition of the transatlantic slave trade) is played by originator and author Giles Terera and at points we feel like we’re watching him, not Olaudah. It’s a play about struggle(s) and a quest for truth and Terera’s journey in writing and researching it involved both. As Bristol Old Vic’s artistic directors Tom Morris and Charlotte Geeves write in the programme, he ‘battled the British theatre establishment’ in order ‘to get it on its feet’. Having taken six years to develop, its debut performance was delayed from early 2020 by the Covid pandemic, so what we’re seeing tonight is almost brand new; the first performance was at the Bristol Old Vic on April 2, 2022, a mere twelve days ago.
Elements of dance and music are skilfully and appropriately combined within a fiery script telling a story of wretched brutality that resulted in the murder of 132 Africans in 1781. Just over 340 years ago being deemed a slave was not enough; you were actually cargo. Or, to use a more emotive word, chattel. Which rhymes with cattle. As the poorly managed Zong drifted off course (and late) towards its destination in the Caribbean the anxiety created by a diminishing supply of drinking water compelled the staff to decide to throw some of the ‘cargo’ overboard. The horrifying genesis of the modern insurance business is laid bare here, for the ship’s owners then tried to claim compensation for the lost ‘cargo’ and went to court to do so. Further evidence of the naked greed that characterised the trade was the fact that the slow progress of the ship was undoubtedly due to it being overloaded with more human beings than it was designed to carry. It’s into the court case that Olaudah, Granville Sharp (a British anti-slavery campaigner played by Paul Higgins) and shorthand expert extraordinaire Annie Greenwood (Eliza Smith) arrive in an attempt to intervene with something approaching the truth. Sadly, it’s pointed out to us by Ottobah Cugoano (Michael Elcock), that every member of the court has a financial interest in the trade… History doesn’t record anyone ever actually being prosecuted for the murders, but the case did give focus and momentum to the anti-slavery campaign, resulting in the 1807 abolition bill being passed.
It’s a searingly disturbing subject but composer and musical director Sidiki Dembele sets the theatrical tone by involving the audience in some call and response percussion, a nevertheless poignant reminder of the importance of the drum as a communication device that overseers were unable to suppress in the Caribbean or southern states. Then we’re in Waterstones where Ama (Kiera Lester) tries, not without humour, to draw attention to the fact that a book about the Slave Trade is in the African History section when it really should be on the British History shelves. The harassed store manager’s perspective is, in truth, only the result of the air-brushed British education he – like most of us – received at school. Talking of shelves, there’s a lot of wood cleverly used in the set to represent the court, ship and office of enterprising journalist William Woodfall (Simon Holland Roberts), tea-chests used as seats carrying the names of Colston et al. A sobering reminder too, that for every Gregson (the Zong’s owners), there was also an Earle, a Davenport, a Bold, a Tuohy and that the Zong was just one of many atrocities connected to the Slave Trade. It’s early days for this production but- harrowing as it is – one can only hope that as many people see it as possible. In an interview with The Guardian even Giles Terera himself admits ‘It was shameful I didn’t know about it.’
Playing until 23rd April, https://tinyurl.com/3k7yjyfe
Reviewer: Roger Jacobs
Reviewed: 14th April 2022
North West End UK Rating: ★★★★