Thursday, October 04, 2007

Rough Crossings - Times Online

This new play by Caryl Phillips, based on the acclaimed book by Simon Schama (photo), is the latest, and probably the most effective, of the year’s theatre events marking the bicentenary of the abolition of slavery.

Directed by the ever-inventive Rupert Goold for Headlong Theatre, it’s a teeming, surging slice of fictionalised history, often lacking the focus that would give it greater potency but always fascinating and immensely watchable. As the action moves between London, a US plantation, a bleak Nova Scotia settlement and what was intended as the new Utopia of Sierra Leone, the work is kaleidoscopic, episodic, sometimes even filmic. Throughout, Adam Cork’s sound design of African drums, tinkling harpsichord, tramping feet and voices raised in spine-tingling spirituals underlines the sense of the bleeding together of histories across geographical, racial and cultural boundaries.

On the perilously tilting platform of Laura Hopkins’s set, lives collide. A screen, angled and taut as the sail of a slaving ship, shows imagery of darkly foaming seas, the pitiless snows of Nova Scotia and, climactically, African civil war. Scenes of drawing-room debate in 18th-century London are encompassed by rope held by swaying slaves. As plantation slaves in the South join the British forces during the American War of Independence on the promise of freedom, the dishevelled figure of the abolitionist Granville Sharp appears with a megaphone calling for an end to the vile trade in human beings. The story unfolds in a restless ebb and flow, swelling into a tidal wave of protest, from which emerge Thomas Peters, the radical former slave rebel, the more politic David George and John Clarkson, the idealistic British naval officer who spearheaded the settlement in Sierra Leone but could not make it succeed.

Goold’s production serves Phillips’s text admirably, bringing clarity to the narrative and depth of humanity to characters whom the writing often neglects to establish vividly enough. The lack of a more defined dramatic structure detracts somewhat from the power of the subject matter and sometimes the detail and subtleties are swept away, but nonetheless this is a bold, vivid piece of work.

Rough Crossings - Times Online