INDEPENDENCE AND SLAVERY: A TALE WORTH RETELLING
Christian is a Maryland Quaker, shoemaker son of immigrants who came to the New World for freedom to worship in peaceable ‘quietude’. But the 1770s were a time of indignation, colonial revolt against the distant British Parliament; “No taxation without representation!”. The young man joins the fight, falls in love with a slave, Susannah; betrays his family’s strict principle by joining the killing battles, gives his loyalty to a new father-figure, Thomas Jefferson, and finds himself at last caught in another betrayal. Timberlake Wertenbaker’s new play, premiered at this enterprising theatre under Bridget Larmour, is both history and intimate saga.
At its heart is the great fault-line in the American story: the fact that the 18th century revolutionary War of Independence, fought in the name of liberty, failed to abolish slavery in the South. The British colonial masters had promised liberty to any slave who fought on their side; that didn’t happen, because they lost. Among the victorious rebels, many idealists expected that the black plantation workers would enjoy the new republican democracy. They didn’t get that either. For all the idealism of Thomas Jefferson, the political need to keep the coalition of states together won; indeed he himself, author of that resounding declaration of self-evident truths and liberties, ran his beloved garden and plantation with slaves. Well-treated slaves, almost family: but not free. It was over a century before abolition. The bitterness and division in American society is felt to this day.
Wertenbaker’s play – sparely set, the cast unfussedly doubling and trebling roles, is not as great a piece as her “Our Country’s Good” (shortly to be revived at the National). The first act, the war, sometimes unrolls too slowly. But the second, where the contradiction and compromise of the political conclusion begins to erode the confidence and happiness of Christian and Susannah, is gripping and real. There are some superb performances: notably David Burnett as Christian himself and William Hope as his real father and as Jefferson himself. Julia St John is superb in dignity as the Quaker matriarch and very funny as Nelly Rose, ageing southern belle in Jefferson’s still-privileged household; Mimi Ndiweni as Susannah has a sharp, fresh anger. All nine cast sometimes form a historic chorus, speaking or singing, explaining or regretting; most movingly at the end they break into fragments of other liberty-songs – French, Greek, Arab, African, right up to today. We perhaps remember the Civil War better, in this country, courtesy of Gone with the Wind. But this is a tale worth telling.
box office 01923 225671 to 21 feb watfordpalacetheatre.co.uk