Brighton Fringe 2023
NB Spoilers below
Esther’s Revenge is an immersive and participatory production telling the story of Nigerian woman Esther Ada Johnson who was accused of murdering her white lover Mark Hall in 1953 in a savage attack.
Previously performed in Nigeria in Lagos (including at Freedom Park, which stands on the old site of Broad Street Prison where Esther was incarcerated) and Abuja, and in South Africa, this production has transferred to the intimate space of the Loft at Brighton’s Fishing Museum.
The audience is met outside (one could hardly say welcomed) by a prison guard, played menacingly by writer Kenneth Uphopho, leather whip belt in hand. After a briefing in which we are told the rules – we cannot give anything to Esther, take anything from her or touch her – we are led upstairs into the performance space, the brick-lined old net rooms. Once here, ten of the audience members are told they are to be the jury and decide Esther’s fate. The sentence for murder is death by hanging.
The guard goes off to fetch Esther (Bola Stephen-Atitebi). She enters noisily, clearly terrified and begins to plead for help. She wants to know if there are any journalists there who can report her case. She asks for a cigarette. Mindful of those rules, people quietly decline.
And then Esther begins to tell her story. There is no denial. And as this is a true story, it is no spoiler to say that she did kill Hall, but as we learn, this was after a long period of abuse and betrayal, culminating in a particularly unpleasant episode. Nowadays most of us would recognise this as mitigation – but it is hard to know what the received wisdom would have been in colonial Nigeria in 1953.
Stephen-Atitebi’s is a remarkably visceral and physical performer. She portrays Esther’s naïve yet very real love for Hall, the gradual dawning of realisation of the kind of man he is, her shame and degradation, and finally grief-stricken anger. She throws herself around the stage in numerous scenes of abuse – pinned against the wall, splayed across the table. It is a powerful and moving performance.
Uphopho has the tricky task of giving us enough of the facts of the case whilst maintaining the verisimilitude of Esther’s testimony. Occasionally the narrative takes us out of the truth of the moment and the momentum stutters a little – a few too many repetitions of key phrases; a little more exposition than we need – but Stephen-Atitebi soon pulls us back in through her emotional performance.
The venue has an intimacy and sense of history that works well for this piece, although on a bright Saturday afternoon, it was perhaps a little too well lit to give the sense of a prison. The acoustics of the space contribute to the atmosphere, the guard’s boots echoing threateningly on the stairs. (For the same reason it might be wise not to allow latecomers in, as it is impossible to enter quietly.)
At the end of her story, Esther leaves and the prison guard returns, giving the jury ten minutes to make their decision. Tentative at first, the audience volunteers soon get stuck in. There is much consensus, but their options are not clear. Is there an alternative verdict? Is there such a thing as diminished responsibility in this time and place? Are we to assume that the prosecution have made their case? The production would have benefited from a little stronger framing here so that the focus was on judgements and opinions rather than trying to second guess the constraints. Nevertheless a verdict is reached and reported back to the guard. Uphopho is superb in this scene.
Finally, Esther returns and the fourth wall is well and truly broken as we learn what happened to her, and are introduced to cast and crew.
This is an ambitious and affecting production, tackling some difficult and still important issues, and with a powerhouse of a central performance. Hat’s off to the whole creative team, including producer Temitope Sanni, Omotola Ibeh and Jasmine Adeniran.