FringeReview Scotland 2022
Joseph Knight is a slave to a Scottish plantation owner, Sir John Wedderburn. Brought to his Perthshire mansion, Knight is encouraged to read and “improve” himself by a man who appears to believe he is enlightened but who displays all of the colonial fervour of a true believer when his commitment to change is challenged. An egotistical man, who may be the Laird, but often beholden to his wife Lady Margaret, he watches in horror as Knight forms a bond with a servant, Annie, making her pregnant and leaving for a life not understood, nor envisaged by his “master”.
Joseph Knight challenged the law. Upon leaving his service, Wedderburn had him arrested, charged and Knight then beat him in court twice. Despite the advice of the likes of Henry Dundas and James Boswell, Wedderburn lost. It was ruled that Scotland did not recognise slavery as compatible with its laws. It allowed itself to be true to itself, and for a slave to be set free.
This is all pretty dramatic stuff, so why does writer May Sumbwanyambe not concentrate upon this event to show us as a country shouldering our responsibilities and making a change for the world to see? Because the better, the more dramatic, is to focus on the uncomfortable truth, that this is a story that tells a tale of which we ought to be ashamed and we ought to make reparations because it has a human element. The courts did not save our bacon, it highlighted that we should not settle down and believe all is solved. We have so far yet to go.
Sumbwanyambe has therefore given us a script of its time and of every time. The choices they have made in how the narrative flows ensures we see the beginnings of an enlightened man, enslaved himself by his marriage, record his attempts to make Joseph a free thinker and a man who will emerge as … ? Like many who wanted to see themselves as forward thinking, Wedderburn is more concerned with himself than the ideal. His wife has no such pretensions. She openly challenges him, and he folds. Perhaps the lack of an heir and Wedderburn’s inability to impregnate and even to enjoy the attempting of it is a brilliant backdrop to the ease with which both Annie and Joseph manage the feat. The scene where Lady Margaret, desperate to encourage his affections, questions him about the rapes he committed in Jamaica and tries to replicate the behaviour of those he found most attractive, shows just how corrupt people became in order to perpetuate the system. Even those who were benefitting from it could not escape the corruption it promotes. It reminds us that the idea was wrong. Just wrong. For everyone, wrong.
But it is not their story, and it is a backdrop to the piece. We do not find ourselves distracted from the principal narrative of Joseph and Annie – for her desire for freedom is also deeply felt. It does, however, humanise the captors, thus heightening the captive’s tragedy. We cannot demonise people and should not as Annie and Joseph’s desire for freedom and to live their lives is counterpointed by their inability to so do, because their captors cannot contemplate just how far down morally, they have fallen.
For Annie, the servant from the local area, her initial jealousy gives way to a tenderness which is beautifully crafted with words and deeds leading to the inevitable pregnancy. Our stage is set for more than conflict upon it – it asks us what we should contribute within our own lives.
It has been directed with great skill and the stage has a simplicity which allows the narrative to flow and not be cluttered by cleverness. By setting it with the colonially framed picture of a Scottish Estate all mist and misty-eyed nostalgia, it calls to mind our past and our continued obsession of the kailyard simplicity of the beauty of our landscape whilst in front of it the uncomfortable truth of how that estate was paid for is brought to our minds.
Omar Austin, Catriona Faint, Rachael-Rose McLaren and Matthew Pidgeon play our four contributors perfectly with grace and poise along with the poison of the orthodoxy of the time and the poison it spreads amongst those oppressed by it after they have to live with their fight against it.
When I saw this, it received a standing ovation. Director Orla O’Loughlin, assisted by Garen Abel Unokan, have given us a piece which is defined by its history, but beckons to our future. Whilst there are arguments over statues and objections to payments being offered to try and set straight our ancestor’s responsibilities, this reminded us of the human cost – Sumbwanyambe’s choice of narrative makes this work so well – and of why it is that theatre is a vital component of that debate.
I was thrilled to watch a mature and intelligently crafted exposure of our past. The whispers from beyond were more effective and affecting than having to watch another polemic. I felt ashamed and proud – the conflict continues.