Exploitation and profit lie barely concealed beneath the surface in Juliet Gilkes Romero’s painstaking recounting of the end of the slave trade in Britain and the machinations surrounding it.
We’re in the early 19th century with political figures gathering together to try to find a way of ending the trade which has brought the nation – and a select band of moneyed investors – great wealth and growing shame.
But with the big stumbling block being how to pay off these rich traders whose wealth has been made on the back of this dark industry, the age-old balance between commerce and moral obligation comes once more to the fore.
Amid the claims and counter-arguments, a pair of women forge an unlikely union and take on those who hold the power they lack.
It’s a combination of rich source material and strong characters which, in the hands of director Kimberley Sykes, provides moments of excellent drama and spirited confrontation.
There are some fine performances. Richard Clothier, as the abolition bill’s proponent Alexander Boyd, is superb throughout. His gradual slide from upright moralist to pragmatic opportunist is so sharply observed you cannot help but see the links to so many of our hopelessly wafer-thin politicians today. Today’s political cliches even make their way into the script including a positively sneaky reference to ‘getting the abolition bill done’.
Debbie Korley and Katherine Pearce offer two women cruelly scarred by the actions of others in their lives, both seeking justice and lasting change from a political system mired in self-preservation and self-aggrandisement. Their despair when those in Westminster let them down underpins another of the play’s fairly obvious moral lessons.
If the chief lesson is that the rich will always profit whichever way the cookie crumbles then it’s not a new lesson and, at three hours, it’s a lesson that could take a lot less time in the teaching. Amid the fine designers, talented composers and top-notch creatives it would be bliss to see a decent script editor. At least 40 minutes of the unremitting bluster and tedious pedagogy presented could be cut, and to great effect because it’s in the more intimate, human scenes and stories that this play really comes alive.
The slave trade, like the colonialism of empire-building, has cast a shadow over the nation’s history ever since. Statues and buildings are even now being taken down or officially renamed in either redressing history or erasing it depending on your view. Our collective discomfort is still acute.
There are intriguing comparisons to be drawn between slavery and the condition of the British working poor, or between the attainment of freedom and the attainment of a political voice. These thought-provoking elements might be even more striking if they weren’t set in so much unnecessary laborious teaching.