Walker Vessels (Stanley J Browne) opens The Slave with a monologue that demonstrates timeless wisdom – a sage delivery written in a rhythmic verse bearing resemblance to many Shakespearean equivalents. Othello and Richard III spring to mind, characters judged by their non-conforming looks more than their intellect or character. As LeRoi Jones’ intense 70 minute play continues, Vessels reveals himself to be both intelligent and passionate, enraged by the continuing discrimination of black society in modern America. Contemporary at least when it was written; protests and guns and Sophie Thomas’ design are evocative of a 1960s apartheid town, combining elements of colour and hipster chic with industrial concrete and wooden structures that hint at the dystopian present within. But The Slave, despite its divided and politically charged subject material, never really conjures up the intensity that the situation demands.
Revolutionary psychopath Vessels (Browne), ex-wife Grace (Samantha Coughlan) and new husband Easley (Stephen MacNeice) are three people from opposing sides of the debate. Jones’ writing cloaks itself in a larger all-encompassing issue about the human rights of black people and easily resounds through a number of historical events that have shaped today’s America. But ultimately Rachel Heyburn directs the production to appear more personal, more insular; this is a dog fight between the possessive males over lost love Grace and the two children. The combination of a larger ideological conversation with the more intimate, familial issue should add dimension to the show, but even this doesn’t serve to propel the performance forward. There is not enough variety in the staging, direction or characterisation for the audience to remain engaged and involved. This is a 70 minute, somewhat dispassionate, debate that even in the final moments end doesn’t manage to twist itself into anything more emotional or impactful.
As Vessels, Browne exhibits an unhinged personality that fits with his internal struggle to simultaneously love and hate his ex-wife, the mother that took his children from him when he simply aspired to change the world into something worth growing up in. That’s one opinion anyway. It isn’t difficult to empathise with the alternative – Grace’s plight, wife of a radical that kills for his beliefs, manifest in the carnal need to protect her children from their monstrous father. Both sides of the story are credibly acted out on stage, a power play where each actor jostles for the position of moral superiority. The individuals are indeed committed; Grace and supportive crutch Easley at times forget that they are held at gun point, such is their moral obligation to exert their supremacist views.
But despite the resulting struggle for all three to be seen as intellectually correct, the production doesn’t have enough ebb and flow, lacking the pace and crescendo needed to successfully build up the final few moments of explosive action. Jones’ dialogue moves forward unrelenting, with little space for the actors to showcase their variety. Hostage situations are often long and drawn out, but here there are no pauses, no moments of quiet to let the futility of the situation sink in. The trajectory is too linear given the hostility inherent in the subject; The Slave conjures up ideas of revolution, of breaking away from boundaries and the freedom of expression that results. The reality of these images aren’t transferred to Heyburn’s show.
The Slave is playing Tristan Bates Theatre until 29 October. For more information and tickets, see Tristan Bates Theatre website.