One of the enduring images of last year which wasn’t directly linked to the pandemic was the statue of Edward Colston being tipped into Bristol harbour; this unleashed a whole debate about Britain’s colonial past. Bristol’s Old Vic Theatre resides in what was once the city’s Theatre Royal built in 1766 and operating at a time when the slave trade was at its height and would have been patronised and financed by the people like Colston who had got rich on this human trafficking. The venue’s current Artistic Director Tom Morris has said: “The theatre is undeniably a part of the slave trade legacy in Bristol. The building came out of that economic boom”. Following refurbishment and reopening in late 2018 one of the earliest pieces to hit its stage was a workshopped performance about this very subject with presumably, the idea that it would become a fully realised piece. With Covid 19 putting paid to such notions, it has been given an audio makeover and released as part of the BBC’s Lights Up festival.
The play called The Meaning Of Zong is drawn from the events which took place on a slave trading ship in 1781. 130 enslaved Africans were thrown overboard when water ran short and a court case was held to decide whether they could be classified as cargo, therefore expendable, and a claim could be made to the relevant insurance company. This was the same incident which prompted Turner’s famous painting The Slave Ship which in turn inspired Winsome Pinnock’s Rockets And Blue Lights which also premiered on the BBC last year as an audio drama. The current piece is the brainchild of award winning Hamilton actor Giles Terera. It is his first play and reveals a distinct voice which weaves a fascinating and often horrifying tale around the real events; the court case itself is verbatim from the transcripts of the time.
Terera focuses principally on two strands. The more conventional follows the attempts of freedman Olaudah Equiano – who goes under the given name of Gustavus Vassa – and anti-slavery campaigner Granville Sharp to bring a prosecution for murder against the ship’s crew/owners. These sections focus on the various arguments surrounding the campaign and subsequent trial with both Terera himself and Samuel West giving impassioned performances of real force and that are crafted to bring out the resonances of modern day parallels – in one scene Equiano is stopped by the police for no apparent reason other than for the colour of his skin. As well as the ongoing heritage of events the play also links the central character to his almost forgotten past – as Vassa he struggles to remember his original name and goes through a moment of painful rebirth to regain his true identity. In the second strand this link to the effects on human identity is strengthened by a concentration on two women on the doomed ship. Monronke Akinola and Gloria Obianyo play the terrified pair and the writing here has a rather more mythical/mystical quality somewhat at odds with the more direct reportage of the main play. It makes for a fascinating combination of styles but perhaps there needs to be a bit more work done on resolving the stylistic discrepancy.
However, there is no doubt about the acting which is top drawer amongst the four leads and the supporting players. While it’s a shame to rob the piece of what would undoubtedly be its powerful visual dimension the rich soundscape of Jon Nicholls transports us both geographically and historically. Nicholls, along with the multi-talented Terera, also provides an evocative music score which gives the piece an epic scope reinforced by the careful direction of the Old Vic’s Tom Morris himself.
And the meaning of “Zong”? I wrote about the potency of an intriguing title just the other day and was interested to know just what this one (which sounds like something Spike Milligan might have dreamed up) is about. It transpires that the title is a direct quote by the judge from the transcripts of the featured trial and that Zong is a corruption of Zorg the Dutch word for “care” – something of which the ship’s owners and managers could never have been accused. And with the notorious case’s contribution towards speeding up the arguments for abolition it has come to have far more resonance and “meaning” than can ever have been originally contemplated.
The Meaning Of Zong is available via BBC Sounds – click here
To keep up with the blog and all the latest online theatre reviews please click here and choose a follow option
For my Theatre Online list (suggestions and news of newly released productions) please click here. This list is supplemented by daily updates on Twitter (@johnchapman398)