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Review of The Slave at Tristan Bates Theatre

The SlaveIt started off so well, with Walker Vessels (Stanley J. Browne) giving a poignant and poetic monologue with so much depth and meaning. But The Slave then proceeds to wring every emotion out of every line that it possibly can, like one of those people in the audience that loudly scrapes plastic on plastic as the second half begins, in a futile attempt to drag out yet more interval ice cream from an already empty container.

There’s a clock on the wall that displays the same time throughout the show and much as I didn’t want it to become a metaphor for this production, eventually – and sadly – the comparison became irresistible: time stood still. The plot itself is interesting enough and had the potential to be gripping, but the cast is let down by a poor script that demands, particularly in the latter scenes, repetition upon repetition, confirmations of confirmations, and a near-total lack of subtlety.

Samantha Coughlan’s Grace started off as the voice of reason, but as the show began to reach its ending, she increasingly screamed like a banshee, and in so doing, became less emotive and eventually one-dimensional. Stephen MacNeice plays Bradford Easley with robust credibility. But an attempt to strangle Walker when Walker has a gun backfires (so to speak) with inevitable consequences. A fight scene was so badly executed that it left some in the audience almost crying with laughter. I was simply distinctly unimpressed.

Only occasionally is Walker, described repeatedly by Grace with that horrid term of contempt that begins with N for a person who happens to be black, genuinely intimidating – the narrative suggests he ought to have been more consistently threatening. Much of the three-way conversation doesn’t so much shift as violently jerk from topic to topic, and with references to miscellaneous works of literature, whether prose, poem or play, the show presents itself as unnecessarily pretentious.

While there is nothing wrong with clarity, and delivering lines in such a manner as to be understood by one and all, the production is almost crying out for some trimming down of the trialogue (I can’t call it a dialogue as there are three of them). Between them, they waste too much time repeating what someone else has already said, and adding nothing of importance or significance in the process of doing so.

The show asks more questions than it answers, but as the show didn’t really engage me, I am not inclined to investigate or ponder any further. With the Black Lives Matter campaign continuing at the time of writing, it is hardly difficult to understand why this play is being put on at this time. However, topicality alone cannot hide the many deficiencies in this show. The cast do the best with what they are given but the production’s lecturing tone holds little appeal.

2 gold stars

Review by Chris Omaweng

EUROPEAN PREMIERE
Whatever the core of our lives. Whatever the deceit. We live where we are and seek nothing but ourselves.
A rare, intimate revival of a seminal play set in the era of the USA Civil Rights movement which explores issues that remain as relevant and important today as when it was first published.

LeRoi Jones’ play The Slave is angry, passionate and unapologetic. This European premiere by Jones (later known as Amiri Baraka) is shocking in its ideas, language, and honest anger. First published and performed in 1964, this one-act play is an examination of the tension between black and white people in contemporary America, starting when African-American Walker Vessels visits the home of Grace, his ex-wife and her new husband Easley who are both white.

From the Slave Trade to the Civil Rights Movement and into the modern day with the Black Lives Matter campaign and our continuing concern over citizenship, identity and cultural belonging, Baraka’s The Slave is as relevant today as when it was first written.

CAST
Walker Vessels Stanley J Browne
Grace Samantha Coughlan
Bradford Easley Stephen MacNeice

CREATIVE TEAM
Director Rachel Heyburn (Pussy Riot, Banksy’s Dismaland)
Designer Sophie Thomas (Royal Shakespeare Company)
Lighting Designer Tim Boyd (National Theatre, Peter Brook’s The Mahabharata)
Music Production Anthony Kosky
Assistant Director Robert Awosusi

THE SLAVE
by LeRoi Jones / Amiri Baraka
11-29 October 2016
https://www.tristanbatestheatre.co.uk/

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