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Wunmi Mosaku and Patrick Robinson
Photo: Manuel Harlan

A moving story of liberation

Eugene Dalton-Ruark reviews Rough Crossings at the Lyric Hammersmith. Adapted for the stage by Caryl Phillips and directed by Rupert Goold

This poignant adaptation from Simon Schama’s book tells the true story of the quest for freedom and rights of African slaves. The tempo is swift and purposeful as it journeys from the southern states of America via England to West Africa.

The two leading characters Thomas Peters, a most vibrant and visionary plantation slave and John Clarkson, a naval officer, a man with a good moral as well as a nautical compass, join forces to enact the intrinsic message, which is one of liberation and equality. Both set about endeavouring to extol the virtues of their own points of view.

Peters is passionate about the emancipation of his fellow slaves and frequently defies by both word and deed the status quo of his white masters. Clarkson, on the other hand, is a keen abolitionist but appears at times to struggle with his desire to effect equitable change and his status as a figure in the roving colonial British establishment.

As the story progresses and various scenes unfold throughout the drama, there are some memorable and thought provoking quotes. Peters is heard to say in a moment of exasperation and defiance: “We are denied freedom and liberty, that is the life of a slave.” Clarkson is also keen to make his more profound thoughts on the subject known by saying to his contemporaries and at times adversaries: “This is a man sir, not your property.”

He was also intent on setting out his vision for a time when all former slaves would live in the mother country - “in England he should have no master, that is the substance of the case”. This rhetoric by Clarkson and others led the drive to have the iniquitous trade abolished in 1807 and in 1833 the passing of legislation granting all slaves their freedom.
Rough Crossings also gives an insight into the traditional, respectful and dignified aspects of African culture and the strong belief that one day freedom would be theirs, even if it took a rebellion to bring it about. The characters acted out these key themes in a determined and credible way.

There are good performances from all of the cast but especially fine ones from the leading actors. The costumes as well as the music and vocal contributions have, I think, caught the mood of the era in a most vivid and atmospheric way. This is in turn complemented by a good script, crisp direction, effective lighting and evocative stage sets.

This moving and enjoyable play certainly crystallises the inequities and injustices of this former cruel and barbaric trade. It leaves the lingering thought that no one should have the right to treat their fellow human beings as if they were sub-human. In this the bi-centennial year of the abolition of the transatlantic slave trade, go and watch the story re-told in fine dramatic style by the most accomplished Headlong theatre company.

Rough Crossings is at the Lyric Hammersmith until October 13 and then on tour.

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