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Slave – A Question of Freedom reviewed

Joan Davies is moved and more by a remarkable story

Published on November 26th 2010.


Slave – A Question of Freedom reviewed

The Slave Trade was abolished 200 years ago. That’s what we’re all taught. Yet slavery still exists, outside the law and the United Nations’ Convention of Human Rights, and on a scale that’s hard to believe: apparently there are more enslaved people today than at the height of the transatlantic slave trade.

Drama works best when there is some uncertainty, particularly where there is moral ambiguity. In a tale of slavery there’s no room for this: the audience knows the difference between right and wrong.

Feelgood Theatre Productions’ Slave – A Question Of Freedom has premiered at The Lowry before moving to London and a national tour. The production is based on the autobiography of Mende Nazer, who was captured from her village in South Sudan and sold into slavery at the age of twelve. Mende regained her freedom years later in London and her story moved from the pages of the press to be told in her own voice in a book ‘Slave’, co-authored with war-reporter and successful novelist Damien Lewis and recently appeared on our television screens as the drama ‘I Am Slave’.

Having read Mende’s book six years ago, Caroline Clegg, founder of Manchester -based Feelgood, has collaborated with local writer Kevin Fegan to bring the story to the stage in a compelling account largely faithful to the original.

Story telling is at the heart of the oral tradition of the Nuba people whose strong culture still survives, under difficult conditions, in the mountains of southern Sudan. After a brief scene in an asylum centre we are taken back to Mende’s childhood and a picture of family and community recognisable throughout the world: the bonds and occasional tensions of family, schoolgirl aspirations and occasional misdemeanours, tradition, ritual and the importance of belief. This life is dramatically disrupted by violent raids and Mende, along with other children, is captured, raped, and taken to Khartoum to be sold as a domestic slave.

Her owners treat her cruelly, deprive her of her name and attempt to deprive her of her dignity. She eats leftovers from the table, sleeps in a hut, and works without any reward for years. Eventually she is sent to London, still a slave, but now working for her owner’s sister whose husband is in the diplomatic service. In London she begins to learn of her rights to freedom, escapes, and eventually, though not easily, gains refugee status and is allowed to remain in the UK...

Rather than living quietly she sees that her story is told and uses the finance and publicity gained to campaign against the barbaric trade and to set up a foundation to build a school in her home village.

Young actor Lashana Lynch describes playing the role of Mende as ‘an honour’. She does justice to that honour in an impressive portrayal, conveying the innocence and wonder of childhood with infectious verve and growing into a young woman who retains an inner dignity while enduring inhuman treatment.

The rest of the talented cast take a variety of roles with no weak links. Joe Speare brings his impressive singing voice to the role of Kujur, a human being with a spirit of God inside him. Elena Pavil portrays Mende’s ‘owner’ and her sister as believable successful women who deserve their place in society and rarely doubt their right to own another individual. Ensemble work is sharp and sure-footed and ensures the cast imbue the dance and song presented as part of Nuba culture with warmth and naturalism.

Drama works best when there is some uncertainty, particularly where there is moral ambiguity. In a tale of slavery there’s no room for this: the audience knows the difference between right and wrong.

There’s no debate at the end of the play. Dramatic impact has to come through other means, an enlightening exploration of the human condition, a window into other cultures, an uncertain outcome. All can grip an audience and repay the talent on show. The strongest part of this production is the midsection from capture to slavery in Khartoum and eventual domestic slavery in London. The first section, showing us Nuba life and Mende’s childhood, is dated in style and suffers from having characters telling one another things they would already know, merely in order to inform the audience of the basics of Nuba life and culture. The calm start does, however, accentuate the contrast with Mende’s life from capture onwards, and the dramatic distancing techniques used to display the experience of violent behaviour are effective without forcing you to look away.

Nigel Hook’s design, making great use of universal circular images, stage, a table, rugs, pots and pans, accentuates the human connection between the different societies, families and friends. Lighting design by Gareth Starkey and Sound by John Redfern complement the action.

Mende herself was present at Press Night and clearly much moved by the performances, the work of Caroline Clegg, and the support of the audience. The play achieves its objective of story telling; the story itself is a spur to action. Next week the play will be move from Salford to be performed at The House of Lords. Just over two hundred year ago Manchester sent a petition to the House of Lords supporting the Foreign Slave Trade Abolition Bill of 1806 which eventually became law. The hope is that the telling and retelling of this powerful story of modern-day slavery will encourage our present day legislators to effective action.

Slave – A Question Of Freedom, 23-27 November, The Lowry, £11-£20

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19 comments so far, continue the conversation, write a comment.

Brian CNovember 29th 2010.

Its all very dramatic and sad, but lets point out that it isnt our culture that either sells its people into slavery or uses slaves. Its the culture of these backward countries and their people. That we are persistently told to 'respect their cultures' play our own down and welcome them here, is a bit of a piss take isnt it?

TickleNovember 29th 2010.

Brian C, I think there's a Daily Mail news story about immigrant hordes overwhelming Britain that's wondering where you've got to. Please take your obnoxious chauvinism there instead.

Brian CNovember 29th 2010.

What is obnoxious or chauvanistic about stating facts? I happen to like my country and I am fed up with it having to carry a whole lot of excess troubles from cultures that if they were so bloody admirable would be working. As it is they dont work, so we have to accomodate them here and listen incessantly to their carping,demands and winging. Its like the Brits are the penitents of the world, makes me sick.

AgricolaNovember 29th 2010.

Oh dear Brian, as a Lancastrian who knows his history, immigration has only ever moved this country forward. It provides fresh ideas and fresh impetus. I'm not penitent, are you? Every culture has episodes in its history which in the 21st century we may feel uncomfortable with. But hey helping victims of slavery is something we should be proud about.

TickleNovember 29th 2010.

'Facts?' Haha. Nothing in the first post is a fact.

Brian CNovember 29th 2010.

@Agricola. You sound like a smug Lancastrian wether you believe you know your history or not. No I am not a penitent by choice, dont you recall us paying out compensation recently for our slave trade involvemnet although we ended it a couple of hundred years ago? It was rammed down our throats then, by every PC arsehole that we were to blame and should feel guilty. I agree we should of course help victims of slavery. I did not say we shouldnt, what I pointed out initially was that we willy nilly accept (or are forced to accept) different cultures that are hundreds of years behind us and that frequently cannot integrate into ours because they are so culturally retarded. But we end up with the problems and our culture is blamed.

AgricolaNovember 29th 2010.

Brian C we've never paid compensation for slavery. Nor should we I think, the causal link to a trade banned in 1807 with any living individuals is too difficult to establish. And if we go down that road then where will it all end. But to reiterate we've never paid compensation lad, maybe keep your ears and eyes open a bit more.

Brian CNovember 29th 2010.

I humbly concede that you are right on that particular point. We just apologised.

Brian CNovember 29th 2010.

@Tickle. I dontmind people disagreeing with me, but it amuses me when they shoot themselves in the foot by stating 'not one part is right'. Do I assume that you believe Mende Nazar is a liar then, or are you just one of the ranters who likes to rant without ever reading the story concerned?

TickleNovember 29th 2010.

Your first post is a combination of opinion and incorrect assertions. The content of the article is beside the point because nothing you stated is true.

Brian CNovember 29th 2010.

@Tickle. My first comment is my belief based on what I see around me and drawn from my experiences. That you may not agree is fine. Luckily I live in a culture that has as yet not been eroded to the extent that I cannot voice an opinion. However if it is a wrong opinion, at least it is mine. I rarely find that someone attcks me that has an argument to back themselves up though. Its usually just people like you saying 'Yer Wrong' and that means FA to me, it counts for nothing.

TickleNovember 29th 2010.

The first recourse of the foaming right-wing idiot who knows they can't even begin to support their statements with decent reasoned argument: "But it's my opinion, I've got a right to an opinion, it's a free country, don't try and restrict my right to talk shite!!"

I've no interest in trying to argue with someone who isn't even coherent enough to decide whether what they're spouting is fact or opinion. Hardly the marker of a mind with a firm grip on logic.

Brian CNovember 29th 2010.

@Tickle. I agree with you, nothing worse than a foaming incoherent who can only throw abuse and resort to gutter language. It generally indicates a lack of intelligence and someone who hasnt enough grey cells or supportive material to argue his way out of the corner he put himself in.

TickleNovember 29th 2010.

How can you be agreeing with something I didn't say?

Brian CNovember 29th 2010.

@tickle. carry on..

TickleNovember 29th 2010.

Okay. 'Our culture', does use slaves.
http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/6459369.stm

Brian CNovember 29th 2010.

It depends on where you see your culture as being doesnt it? Mine is here. I read the article but was already aware of non British countries who are now part of The European Union selling and trafficking their own people on a grand scale ably assisted again by their own people who are already here and pretending to be legitimite.

TickleNovember 29th 2010.

The slaves are working in Britain. So it's clearly our culture that is using them, no?

Brian CNovember 29th 2010.

Anybody who is exploited can be linked to us or anyone else in the world because of individual or group evil. My socks were probably made by someone working in some form of bondage or exploitive situation. But as a Nation we generally set the standards for human rights and decency and the world benchmarks against us. In truth though, we blew much of that credibility with this current war. The one started by the Blair Govt that preached political correctness here and yet sent us off on an unnecessary and wholly immoral war.

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