The Slave – a fierce play about racial tension

Words: James MacGregor

Taking your seat at the theatre can be a striking experience.

When the curtain lifts, you can find yourself transported back in time, revisiting the tensions that defined the past, vividly brought to life on the stage.

This is all the more poignant when the shadows of those very same tensions inhabit the present too. The Slave, a play heralding from the era of the African-American Civil Rights movement of the 1960s, has been resurrected 50 years since its first appearance of stage. Despite its ages, it still feels particularly contemporary. This is in part testament to the power and resonance of the original writing, and also to the cast and crew, who have skilfully harnessed and revitalized the play’s potential. Has it ever stopped being relevant?

The plot centres on the home of white couple Grace and Brad Easley, whose existence is threatened by the unexpected arrival of Grace’s militant (and of course, black) ex-husband Walter Vessels (played suitably maniacally by Stanley J Browne). The complex background is revealed only gradually. Walter is the estranged father of Grace’s two children (asleep upstairs), and has come to take them away with him.

Pertinently, he is also the leader of a black military movement that is at war with “the whites” – his forces are currently besieging the city in which Grace and Brad live (detonating mortar shells punctuate the production). Against this backdrop, the story twists and turns acrobatically, accelerating and decelerating in intensity as it weaves between ideological debate, lyrical monologues and bursts of abrupt violence before climaxing explosively in a cacophonous ending. Suffice to say, it will keep you entertained.

Whilst Browne as Walter often steals the limelight (once quite literally) with his eyes-afire polemics, his jubilant mockery and exceptional stage presence, he is ably supported. Samantha Coughlan (Grace) navigates the treacherous waters of maintaining her noble motherly defiance, whilst also radiating a growing hopelessness, dismay and terror.

Her husband, the bespectacled and becardiganed Brad – played by Stephen MacNeice, likewise sparkles. As the play progresses, his passive and fearful academic demeanour is weaned away by desperation, as his dialectical assaults on the possibly insane Walter find no traction. Watching him is one of the play’s great treats, as he wrestles with his own lack of courage in probing for Walter’s weaknesses, both physical and psychological.

What flaws there are in The Slave mostly derive from the original script. Although fluent and strong for the most part, at times it can feel a touch verbose, and occasionally a little static. The production team have clearly worked hard to mitigate the audience wearying impacts of some of the longer soliloquies, adding delicate touches of humour and dynamic use of the set to keep the audience engaged.

Above all, though, this play is intelligent, inviting you to follow the exasperated and desperate internal struggle of Walter. The changes of pace, along with the gritty dialogue and passionate acting forge together a gripping production and one that is undeniably – and unsettlingly – relevant.

Words: James MacGregor

The Slave runs until the 29th October at the Tristan Bates theatre.

Tue-Sat, 7.30pm & Sun, 3.30pm.

Tickets £16 / £14 concs (preview 11 Oct, all tickets £10).

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