Juliet Gilkes Romero
Royal Shakespeare Company
Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon
When in 1833 Parliament finally abolished slavery, it was only by conceding a programme of compensation—not of course for the slaves who were to have remained trapped in unpaid ‘apprenticeships’ for seven years, but for their former owners.
The cost was £20 million, 40% of the government’s annual revenue, and financed by a Rothschilds loan that British taxpayers did not pay off until 2015.
The background to that Slavery Abolition Act is the subject of former BBC journalist Juliet Gilkes Romero’s important and revelatory play, which should encourage re-evaluation of what historians have quoted as a ‘perfectly virtuous’ episode in our history.
It’s a polemical work, but even if the piece lacks the odd sparkle of humour, Romero brilliantly encompasses issues of child labour, female emancipation, even a bit of police brutality, without this becoming a three-hour diatribe.
In a stunning address, the runaway slave Mercy Pryce, played with blazing intensity by Debbie Korley, tells of her sister destroyed on a treadmill, and how her desperate pregnant mother leapt into a cauldron of boiling sugar “thus depriving her owner of crop, servant and future stock.”
She finds a sister-in-arms in Horatia Poskitt, played by a feisty Katherine Pearce, whose five-year-old daughter was killed in a Lancashire cotton mill.
Richard Clothier becomes a figure of tortured elegance as Alexander Boyd, the reform-minded Whig chief whip outmanoeuvred and forced to concede every concession to slave-owning Tory MPs, led by a rambunctious John Cummins as Cornelius Hyde Villiers.
But for all his moral integrity, Boyd is not above treating his ward—Corey Montague-Sholay as a dignified runaway slave Edmund—as an unpaid servant.
For dramatic effect, Romero seems to have compressed and conflated characters as well as events. Her fictional Lord Maybourne, played with suave assurance by David Birrell, the ambitious fixer who buys the Bill’s success, may be based upon the contemporary Lord Melbourne; Tom McCall’s passionate Anthony Bradshaw Cooper may be drawn from the staunch abolitionist Thomas Fowell Buxton.
If so, their personal circumstances were rather different—Melbourne did not own slaves, Buxton didn’t come from a family of mill owners.
It probably doesn’t greatly matter. The story of the slaves, hidden on the notorious Middle Passage from Africa to the Americas, too often ignored thereafter, is becoming better known. The story of those who continued to benefit from their enslavement, even after liberation, is not.
Reviewer: Colin Davison