Non fiction

Issue #4

Rough Crossings

Rough Crossings              West Yorkshire Playhouse

‘Fact, fact , fact!’ said the gentleman. And ‘Fact, fact, fact!’ repeated Thomas Gradgrind. Unfortunately, Caryl Phillips’ adaptation of historian Simon Sharma’s novel would appeal to our man from Coketown, for in what ought to be a heart wrenching dissection of the triumph of commerce over morality; fortune and greed over humanity; expedience over loyalty; the epic sweep from the American War of Independence to the plantation slaves liberation in their new Sierra Leone utopia - a passage of gruelling intensity - becomes ( despite the play’s remarkable pedigree ) some BBC historical re-enactment, a classroom discourse, exercise set, homework submitted.

The human tragedy of slavery with its contemporary resonance - Third World Gap workers subsist, whilst an estimated 25000 sex workers, bound in modern day serfdom, lie locked in British terraces - the monumental ability to condemn our fellow man and woman into utmost degradation, despair, and ultimately death, is never adequately challenged. We are awash with detail, yet the combatants with their barely fleshed skeletal representation, leave us desirous of characters, whose guilt, hurt and psychological turmoil are writ large, daubed in the blood of Imperial Britain.

High in theatricality,Low in drama, Rough Crossings lets down a fantastically vibrant, talented cast whose strength and energy alone save a text more suited to the lectern than the stage. The play is led by Peter De Jersey’s god fearing, preacher man, David George - an individual caught between the rock of appeasing the colonial and the hard place of betraying his colour; Patrick Robinson’s headstrong, embittered Thomas Peters - a man who sees slavery as much in the mind as the manacle; and the naïve, youthful, Naval officer, John Clarkson ( Ed Hughes ), who wants not the past, but black and white side by side, the ensemble pieces, spliced with traditional spirituals are a delight.

If the script appears sketchy, the splendidly versatile set of Laura Hopkins’ - at once the deck, the hustings, the hold and the windswept rigging, a canvas of haunting images including Turner’s Slave Ship ( an oil, incidentally, so vivid, as to be used by the abolitionists ) - lends a force heightened by Paul Pyant’s lighting, a spectacular West African blush sunrise engulfing a landscape where hope too would be enslaved, then a Vermeer miniature, as Clarkson, writhing on a hammock, fights his fever.

Captive to history, Phillips’ play is redeemed by the energy and vision of company and crew, who never once falter in inhaling life into a piece, that, from the start should not require extra oxygen.

Pete Goodland