|PIC1|If you fancy more than a few short laughs at the theatre this season, African Snow, the latest production from Riding Lights Theatre Company and York Theatre Royal, offers an honest look at one of the darkest moments in Britain's history.
The play brings enslaved face to face with enslaver in an imaginary yet highly probable meeting between Olaudah Equiano, a slave who eventually buys his own freedom and goes on to become the leading black figure in the movement to abolish the slave trade, and John Newton, the slave trader who struggles to come to terms with his willing complicity in the trade of African flesh before his dramatic conversion to Christianity.
As Britain marks the bicentenary of the abolition of the slave trade this year, Paul Burbridge's African Snow is a refreshing confrontation with a part of Britain's history that many would rather forget. The play doesn't allow that and the audience is instead drawn into all the experiences and emotions that lead victim and perpetrator to feel what they feel and say what they say in the moment of a first and unexpected meeting.
There are some very poignant moments in the play, particularly when Equiano, superbly and dynamically performed by Israel Oyelumade, is strung upside down on a slave ship and when the slave cook appears on stage wearing a muzzle to prevent her eating the master's dinner. But this is a play that does not want pity: it wants change and strives to tackle head-on the issues of forgiveness and justice. When the crime has been so great and the wound runs so deep, at what point can forgiveness truly be granted and also truly received?
Murray Watt's script is somewhat prolix in style and one shorter and less weighty would have provided the audience with a greater opportunity to engage with the emotional experiences of the characters. Yet Sean Cavanagh's timber frame set brings the piece to life as the actors clamber, scrabble over and at times hang from the piece. Its ominous quality is complemented greatly by Ben Cracknell's shadowy lighting and sends out a powerful reminder to the audience that the slave trade imprisoned millions of Africans.
The superb cast is largely black with Roger Alborough the only white actor in the ensemble to play Newton. This combines with Ben Okafor's rich African score and his beautiful African gospel re-rendering of Newton's hymn, Amazing Grace, to leave the audience in no doubt that this is an African story from an African perspective.
African Snow is powerful, thought-provoking and puts flesh on the words 'slave trade' in a way that no bicentenary commemoration has done so far this year. If it was the desire of the producers to awaken the audience from a slumber of indifference towards the slave trade and acknowledge it as a real and terrible event in Britain's history, then they have wholly succeeded.
African Snow is currently on show at the Trafalgar Studios in London's West End. For more information about African Snow and a list of dates and venues go to www.ridinglights.org/
Theatre Review: African Snow
Published 28 April 2007