Rough Crossings at the Lyric Hammersmith is an ambitious and important new play, addressing the subject of slavery and the attitude of both white paternalists and the strong voices of black enfranchisement. Based on a book by Professor Simon Schama (a television historian and Columbia University academic) and adapted for the stage by Caryl Phillips, Rough Crossings tells the fascinating true life tale (a ‘fictionalised account of real events’ as the programme has it) of American owned slaves who had fought for Britain during the American War of Independence in the 1780’s. They had been promised freedom and land for their service, but once the war was lost they were sent to the inhospitable climes of Nova Scotia, where they were little better than slaves to the white landowners there anyway. Crusading English abolitionists suggest that a solution to their, and other ‘black poor’ in London’s situation, would be the establishment of a black trading colony in Africa, where the former slaves could live as free men and women and make a living (and a profit for London too). These utopian ideals soon fall away when the ingrained racial superiority feet by many of the white traders, and absolute indifference by the trading company in London, who reneged on most of their promises to the ex-slaves. Out of this story we have a powerful narrative (including dehumanising scenes of the transatlantic slave trade), and three central characters emerge. John Clarkson (Ed Hughes), the idealistic English Captain who leads them to Sierra Leone and takes charge of the colony, David George (Peter DeJersey), a preacher and enthusiast for not only the African trip, but fighting for the British as whilst a slave in America, and finally Thomas Peters (Patrick Robinson), a radical man of conviction who will not defer to British authority, especially on African soil (who was also a slave and less willing volunteer to the British Army alongside George). The god intentions of Clarkson, whose brother was the famous abolitionist Thomas, do not bring much better conditions or real freedom for the blacks; his regime is simply backing up white intransigence to their fate and the continuity of white dominance over their labour. George is a man who deeply cares about his people, but is working with the system and white rule to gain improvements. Peters is the inspiring presence onstage and in the lives of the settlers, he is a powerful, intelligent man who has a visceral feeling about the rights and wrongs of the situation. Watching him stand up for what he believes, even when it would be less dangerous and very easy for him to keep quiet, is quite moving (and Robinson gives a great performance). Peters and George are two leaders with ultimately the same ends, but different ideas, one is politic and polite, the other reckless and heartfelt. In the end the colony, which becomes the capital of Sierra Leon, ends in failure, the aims of the founders are disregarded and Peters is dead. Freetown simply becomes another part of the British Empire.
This play is important, not only because it tells us an overlooked historical story, but because it makes us think about slavery today. We are asked to examine high minded attitudes that might seem noble and good, but end up in death and disaster (think about that in a modern context). It also provokes us to see where the Great Britain we live in today came from, our previous political might and economic dominance (both of which we live with today, though diminished) all stem from the slave trade, the rulers and churchmen of the nation profited from slaves for hundreds of years. Whilst the audience sitting in Hammersmith might be of various classes and extractions, we all benefit from the slave trade and empire by living in one of the richest countries in existence when the situation of the people in Sierra Leone is still pretty dire.
Rupert Goold directs (for his Headlong Company, in a co-production with several regional theatres where the production will visit after the Hammersmith run) with his usual fluent panache and vision, he intersperses song with powerful drama. His cast of 16 are universally excellent, this being an ensemble piece (despite the prominence of the three characters I mentioned earlier). The set (Laura Hopkins) is simple yet effective, consisting of a raised rotating platform above the stage, which creates a versatile two tiered space which can represent anything from the deck of a ship to a hill or a meeting room. There is also video projection (Lorna Heavey), which blends in well with the piece (sometime video can seem a little awkward in my view).
Saying all this, Rough Crossings is not universally brilliant, in the first act it can sometimes be a little dry (during exposition mostly), and I felt that the more compelling second act ended rather abruptly. But apart from that, the style of the production and the commitment of the actors give you an interesting and worthwhile evening out.