Sugar (The Covid-19 Monologues #4)

Mike Elliston
Elysium Theatre Company

Sugar

Times and sensitivities change. In the 17th century, Edward Colston was a merchant, Tory MP and philanthropist whose charitable works were so significant, buildings and streets in Bristol were named after him and a statue was erected in his honour. In recent years, misgivings have been expressed about these honours as people struggled to reconcile his charitable deeds with the fact his fortune was founded on the Atlantic Slave Trade. Public awareness of this debate increased when, during the recent Black Lives Matter protests, Colston’s statue was chucked in Bristol harbour.

A challenge facing dramatists is that the imposition of modern-day concerns upon characters in a period setting can result in a contrived piece of work. Author Mike Elliston avoids this problem by making his central character a priest so, despite the period setting, it is credible he might have misgivings about Colston’s profession.

The title of the play has a double meaning: ‘Sugar’ is used by Reverend Harcourt (Edmund Dehn) as a coy euphemism to avoid swearing and the slaves sold by Colston ended up in sugar plantations. Reverend Harcourt is awakened from an uneasy sleep and commissioned to give the sermon at the funeral of Sir Edward Colston. The commission disturbs Harcourt who is aware of how much he benefitted from Colston’s philanthropy but disturbed to think of how the funds were generated. As Harcourt tries to justify Colston’s behaviour, he becomes aware of how far he too has deviated from Christian standards.

Neither the author nor the actor tries to make the audience like the self-pitying Reverend Harcourt. The script makes clear, while he will hold his nose and mingle with his poorer parishioners, Harcourt regards them as closer to vermin than people. Edmund Dehn’s tormented performance is an exercise in calculating hypocrisy and self-loathing. Harcourt guiltily acknowledges the extent to which he enjoyed the worldly benefits of Colston’s patronage. Dehn licks his lips, sensually recalling the food Colston made available and is shamefully aware how he facilitated the perception of Colston as a philanthropist.

Sugar does not shy away from the complexity of the situation, considering whether Colston, by relieving those in poverty, removed them from the temptation of crime and so did more to save their souls than his own. But Harcourt is aware it is not possible to hold a contract with God—to buy redemption or mitigate past misdeeds.

Sugar examines a complex situation in such a compelling manner it is easy to overlook characters who are hardly likeable.

Reviewer: David Cunningham