One outcome of the pandemic has been that the lines between theatrical, online and filmed performance have become ever more blurred over the last eighteen months or so resulting in a number of shows which have hybridised into a new form. Such is the case with Selina Thompson’s Salt which in various iterations has played at both Edinburgh and the Royal Court, was streamed by Battersea Arts Centre during summer 2021 and which has recently emerged as a television film now available on BBC’s iPlayer.
Salt recounts a personal journey undertaken by the artist and writer in the middle of the last decade when she decided as an act of homage to retrace the route of the transatlantic slave trade triangle (Europe to Africa – Africa to the Americas – the Americas to Europe) in order to engage with a past that could only otherwise be imagined. It is, unsurprisingly, a painful experience and one which became the basis of a dramatic monologue performed by a character know simply as The Woman. Dressed all in white she becomes the voice of countless numbers of victims of a system which European history subsequently attempted to tidy away but in recent years has found an outlet for its justified grievances. In the original staging, The Woman periodically takes a sledgehammer to large salt crystals reducing them into fragments in a gesture of defiance which simultaneously smashes the system and breaks it down for closer examination.
It is appropriate in this filmed version that elements of the staged performance remain part of the narrative, but the content has been broadened to include a documentary component. Thus Thompson reveals her thoughts and feelings behind the journey and the creation of the stage piece in interview sections conducted by Afua Hirsch. These are further interspersed with travel footage, some historical background and sections which encourage contemplation and reflection. It becomes evident that her recreated journey was a highly uncomfortable one. It coincided with the death of her grandmother and so was carried out with personal sadness and a degree of guilt. The first leg of the journey was via an Italian container ship where she encountered overt racism from members of the crew and when she reaches Ghana and visits Elmina – one of the many so called slave forts which traded in human life – she is all but overwhelmed. Journeying on to Jamaica, the birthplace of her departed grandmother and then home again seems to bring a form of release and gradually the idea for the monologue begins to take shape.
Several years later Thompson is able to reflect more dispassionately on her experiences presumably aided by the cathartic experience of writing and performing the stage show. While anger is palpably at the bottom of the piece, the deployed distancing technique of the character of The Woman with her wry observations makes it less personal and more universal. Thompson’s conclusion is that we should all take the time to attempt to examine our individual and collective pasts in order to move on into our own more settled futures where we can be at peace with ourselves and with one another.
This film almost certainly stretches the limits of what might be considered an online performance. However, I thought I should include it in my ongoing round up partly because many elements of it started life onstage and partly because it is a subject which cries out to be given a voice. The fact that it can and has been done in various configurations and formats suggests that it is not simply a stage play, a television film or any other reductive categorisation but rather a genuine and resonant work of art. The one shame is that we are unable to share in the final moments of the live experience when audience members were given shards of the shattered crystal to take away as reminders of an inhuman experience which to this day taints our collective history.