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The Return of Benjamin Lay at Finborough Theatre

This is a seventy minute monologue by the American playwright Naomi Wallace and historian Marcus Rediker. Benjamin Lay was born into a Quaker family near Colchester in Essex in 1682 where he worked as a sheep farmer until, at the age of thirty-six, he became a sailor and moved to Barbados. He later became a strong advocate for the abolition of slavery, refusing to wear, eat or use anything that others had made and lived in a cave, being ejected from various Quaker Meeting Houses for the ways in which he put forward his abolitionist views.

Ben Lay - Mark Povinelli. Photo by Robert Boulton.
Ben Lay – Mark Povinelli. Photo by Robert Boulton.

As always at Finborough Theatre, some thought has been paid to the staging of the piece, from Riccardo Hernandez’ and Isobel Nicolson’s striking set, removing the shutters from the large windows in the theatre so that natural light streams in. Unfortunately they did not realise that one of the windows faces west and the setting sun makes viewing what is happening on stage quite awkward for the first forty minutes or so, especially at midsummer and with the recent warm weather!

As it is not possible to ‘black out’ the theatre, Anthony Doran has found it quite a challenge to design any meaningful lighting, though, ever up for a challenge, he has atmospherically lit the rear of the stage from below as well as from above. However, even he has not been able to light Lay’s face strongly enough to counteract the power of the sun from behind!

Benjamin Lay is played by American actor Mark Povinelli, never sounding like someone born in Essex, even 340 years ago! He has terrific energy, using at some time all the props on stage, from the three chairs to the ladder clamped to the wall upstage, but, in his efforts to make the play interesting, he seems to be working far too hard. The director, Ron Daniels, never allows him or the audience to relax, pushing the piece on at speed, whereas in fact both he and we need time to absorb what he is saying. Lay comes across as an obnoxious person with no saving graces, especially not a grain of humour. The playscript/programmes describes him as a “dwarf and a hunchback”, but his real character never seems to be fleshed out in the writing. Several times the “fourth wall” is broken when he walks amongst the audience and tries to get them, for example, to “baa” like a sheep or suggest books that he might read: being a British audience, embarrassment and silence is the reaction. The script suggests that Lay should invite the audience to join him on stage towards the end of the play, but luckily Daniels has cut this instruction: “If people don’t join, he may take a person’s arm and encourage them so that others follow”.

The play, we are told, is set “in a Quaker Meeting House, in Benjamin’s mind, in our minds. 1730 and now… or is it a theatre?” The writing is, unfortunately, repetitive, dense and confusing and we soon give up trying to understand where the play is set, what the playwrights are trying to say, or even why they are saying it! We search in vain for clarity but clarity is hidden in the verboseness and pseudo-intellectualism of the script. It is difficult to believe that Benjamin Lay would have been able to express himself as they would have us believe. The programme tells us that “The Return of Benjamin Lay sweeps across the centuries in a bold exploration of an utterly impossible man”. That may have been the authors’ intentions but unfortunately they have not been realised onstage. This is a great shame as there is an important story waiting to be told here.

2 gold stars

Review by John Groves

2023. A Quaker meeting house on the Finborough Road – or is it a theatre?

Benjamin Lay – shepherd, sailor, prophet, and the British Empire’s first revolutionary abolitionist – returns from the grave almost 300 years after his death, as feisty and unpredictable as ever.

A 4ft tall “Little David” confronts the “Goliath” of slavery once again as he pleads to be readmitted into the Quaker community that has disowned him and who still believe him to be dangerous.

Now, “trembling at the edge of playing God himself”, how far will Benjamin go as he stares down his accusers?

THE RETURN OF BENJAMIN LAY
by Naomi Wallace and Marcus Rediker

Production Team
Director RON DANIELS
Set Designer RICCARDO HERNANDEZ ISOBEL NICOLSON
Costume Designer ISOBEL NICOLSON
Lighting Design ANTHONY DORAN
Sound Design JOHN LEONARD
Movement Consultant BILL IRWIN
Assistant Director MARTHA J. BALDWIN

Producer
Presented by Arsalan Sattari Productions in association with Neil McPherson for the Finborough Theatre.

Supported By University of Pittsburgh

https://finboroughtheatre.co.uk/

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Author

  • John Groves

    John Groves studied singing with Robert Easton and conducting with Clive Timms. He was lucky enough to act in the British premiere of a Strindberg play at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe more years ago than he cares to remember, as well as singing at the Royal Opera House - once! He taught drama and music at several schools, as well as examining the practical aspects of GCSE and A level drama for many years. For twenty five years he has conducted a brass band as well as living on one of the highest points of East Sussex surrounded by woodland, deer, foxes and badgers, with kites and buzzards flying overhead.

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