Thursday, September 21

The Return of Benjamin Lay – Finborough Theatre

Can one make a statement and beg to be brought back to the fold, renouncing all principles? Can one’s desire to be accepted be stronger than one’s principles?

The Return of Benjamin Lay, written in collaboration between Naomi Wallace and Marcus Rediker, under the direction of Ron Daniels, and with acting by Mark Povinelli as Benjamin Lay, is a striking piece about a very interesting historical character. The treatment Povinelli gives the character is on its own, remarkable, and hits all the right nerves. The stage of the Finborough Theatre is made almost bare, with the windows letting in the noise and images of the cars from outside, and from the place where this reviewer was sitting, the sun was hitting in the faces of the audience.

The set design, by Riccardo Hernandez and Isobel Nicholson, sets a very quiet mood for the sudden entrance of Povinelli’s Lay on stage, who starts, right away, making his case to be reaccepted as a fellow Quaker. The text starts with images of beetles, lambs, and clouds, and this tenderness becomes inviting. After having some of the members of the audience participate, the play takes a quick turn to deal with Lay’s appearance as a little person. The character presents then very good arguments against disablism, including his ability to repair the sails of the ship without falling or tearing the sail.

The story becomes full of travels through the sea, slavery, suffering and loss soon enough, and Povinelli’s straightforward performance, with pure action almost in every word, makes use of every object in the stage in a way that seems the only way possible. The coming and going through all the life of Lay is set in a way that inspires compassion, as we see the character struggle with his own beliefs while he tries to convince the Quaker Assembly that he is not evil. In our contemporary views, we can understand him probably much better than the people in his time.

The poetic imagery, with Povinelli’s Lay entering with just one bag at the beginning, and his asking for help from the audience nearly the end, is a path of many turns, and on each turn, the play will take the audience by the hand, pleading for understanding, but also trying to show the horrors that some actions or some omission bring with them.

An incredibly beautiful journey along an amazing actor, this simple play brings reflection on sensitive topics in the form of a scenic poem. If you end up bleating like a lamb at some point, you will undoubtedly enjoy doing it.

Playing until 8th July,

Reviewer: Gonzalo Sentana

Reviewed: 15th June 2023

North West End UK Rating:

Rating: 4 out of 5.