Winsome Pinnock’s leviathan of a play opens with a meditation on a slave ship painting by JMW Turner which drew upon the Zong massacre of enslaved Africans in 1781. An actress and artist stand in a gallery, in the present day, talking about bearing witness to the horrors of black British history and all that still remains hidden in plain sight.
The tight focus of this opening pans out to become a tidal wave of plotlines, ideas and characters with parallel stories in the past and present that incorporates the slave trade and its abolition as well as debates on the politics of storytelling and representation, Turner’s life and politics, and remembering – or forgetting – black trauma.
Directed by Miranda Cromwell, the production has had two former lives, first at the Royal Exchange theatre in Manchester where it was cut short in previews due to the first lockdown and then as an audio play, broadcast days after the toppling of Edward Colston’s statue in Bristol.
More than a year later, it feels like a relief to see Britain’s slave history dramatised on stage rather than the many more stories of slavery imported from the US that give the impression its legacy is theirs to bear, not ours. Britain’s slave past is not dead, it is suggested here, but bleeds into the present and terrorises it. “The woman in the painting moved,” says the actress, Lou (Kiza Deen), to the artist, Essie (Rochelle Rose), signalling the direction the play will take.
The present day features actors rehearsing a film called The Ghost Ship while the past revolves around a family that has lived through slavery into abolition, alongside Turner himself (Paul Bradley).
Laura Hopkins’ clear stage design consists of a stripped wooden floor resembling a ship’s bare deck. There is an ankle-deep pool of water at one end which conjures the salty broil of sea despite its shallowness.
The past at first co-exists with the present and then gatecrashes it as dead characters appear beside the living – Turner’s dead mother, vir een, hangs above the stage like a gothic mermaid. The surreal and playful meets violence and cruelty and there is marvellously unexpected wit and magical realism.
The wealth of overlapping stories – several about storytelling itself – give the drama an exciting, anarchic edge but also create cerebral circles within circles; characters multiply as the cast doubles up across timeframes and speak with a certain duality about their own stories and of a bigger history, until the play seems to list and lurch with the weight of it all.
There are plenty of potent moments nonetheless and actors bring immense conviction: a mother remembers the pain of her son being sold to become a white family’s “pet”. Historical characters dance a quadrille while a contemporary couple gyrate to a thumping bass in a mash-up of time and space. Violence is not enacted on the bodies of slaves but beside them – so that one woman’s oppressor whips the floor a few metres away from her. It is a stark contrast to the excruciating whipping scene in 12 Years a Slave. The scene carries great power and is arguably one way to circumvent what Lou calls “torture porn” in slavery narratives.
The play feels like a giant, complex, shifting creation by the end, its ideas epic, its ambition radical, its history containing multitudes.