With light at the end of the tunnel for live performance and some of our biggest institutions announcing summer programmes at their venues, the BBC’s new Lights Up Festival has arrived at a moment of optimism, not just acting as a reminder of all the talented people and great work under threat from sustained closure but of the opportunities to come. Running across several weeks in March and April on BBC television and radio showcasing talented stars and writers, Lights Up has aired its first new play developed in association with the Bristol Old Vic and the National Theatre, but that’s not the only new theatre-related work being broadcast.
The Meaning of Zong
The first of these is Giles Terera’s The Meaning of Zong, a 100-minute piece reflecting on the long legacy of slavery, politics and identity by dramatising a court case which shed light on the murder of 132 slaves thrown overboard by the crew of a British transport ship which claimed it was running out of supplies. This real event from 1781 is an attempted cover-up by the British legal system and becomes the basis for the abolition movement, asking questions about the right to own and therefore destroy another human being.
Terera’s debut play directed by Tom Morris, was originally written for the stage and will undoubtedly find one soon because this first dramatisation already feels like a very visual experience and structurally, Terera employs three related layers through which to tell his story. The Meaning of Zong is framed in a modern day bookshop as a young woman questions the location of the volume she is holding while hearing the echoing voices of her antecedents trying to connect her identity to this story. The concept of shared pain and linked experience also feeds through the play’s other layers, the first in which Olaudah Equiano who requites his given name of Gustavas Vassa pursues the case in London enlisting support to interview witnesses and locate the truth, and the second which evocatively recreates the last days on ship as the possibility of death approaches.
Where you draw the line between what is ‘other’ and what is you is central to Terera’s piece, excavating concepts of racial oppression and disenfranchisement that reflect through the centuries, while also using the central relationship between Equiano and abolitionist supporter Granville Sharp to explore ingrained concepts of difference, privilege and charity that overcome basic principles of humanity and equality. That all this plays largely as a courtroom drama is testament to Terera’s skills as a debut dramatists, using the shape and purpose of the legislative process to motor the play and give it a time-bound structure while interrogating the falsely made claims and human cost of a terrible crime reported by the English court in its dry matter of fact style.
That this presents an opportunity for dramatic climax is something Terera carefully sidesteps, using the court’s decision not as the outcome of the play but the introduction to a third Act that examines the character’s longer history and connection through the centuries to those who have come before and since, as well inculcated assumptions that even the liberal Granville struggles to recognise. In the lead role Terera uses his character to explore the Establishment’s long-held prejudices and attempts to dehumanise both victims and perpetrators in the system, most notably and all too recognisably in a scene where the eighteenth-century equivalent of the police stop the innocent Equiano and roughly manhandle him because of his skin colour – an experience that links this play to those such as Ryan Calais Cameron’s Typical with Richard Blackwood available via Soho on Demand and films including The Obituary of Tunde Johnson shown during BFI Flare 2021 and Ken Fero’s documentary Ultraviolence from October’s London Film Festival.
Terera’s performance is pivotal to the three strands of storytelling, bringing them together in the experience of Equiano whose quiet determination drives The Meaning of Zong and draws together a diverse collection of characters which includes Michael Balogun’s (Terera’s understudy who brilliantly premiered in the Death of England: Delroy) agitator and fellow theatre star Samuel West who brings concern and energy to the role of Granville whose development during the play is marked by his own contention between compassionate humanitarian ideals and the realities of structured racism.
The trapped women on the ship awaiting death are the play’s lasting memory, hauntingly and poetically played by Monronke Akinola and Gloria Obianyo which upend the formal business and language of the British courtroom with the real human experience of suffering, fear and solidarity as they approach a certain death. And here the play links to Winsomme Pinnock’s Rockets and Blue Lights that also draws on Turner’s The Slave Ship painting and premiered as an audio drama when unable to perform in Manchester.
Though not badged as part of the Lights Up Festival, Brian Friel’s 45-minute piece Afterplay certainly belongs in the programme as the renowned playwright makes his own radio debut with a new play celebrating the work of Anton Chekhov starring the brilliant Janie Dee and Alex Jennings who are both superb. At the end of Uncle Vanya, when Sonya says ‘we must live out our lives’ there is little hope for a young woman whose spirit has already broken, when the man she loves has made his indifference clear and the family she relies on has become fractured. The yearning and unyielding emptiness – one of Chekhov’s favourite themes – is all that awaits Sonya and her like, forever dreaming of what might of been while trapped in the hard reality of dissatisfied existence.
Friel imagines Sonya a couple of decades later when the unvarying routines of her life are shaken up by the passing of her beloved Uncle Vanya and she must take a trip to the mythical allure of Moscow to settle the family business. There by chance in the same cafe over three nights, she meets and dines with Andrey, a musician escaping the clutching hold of his family’s estate for the chance to play the violin in the capital far away from his three sisters.
Directed by Martin Jarvis, Afterplay is a duologue between Sonya and Andrey, two of Chekhov’s beleaguered but level-headed characters who were largely observers of the complicated socio-economic and political struggles that taxed their families in the famous plays set years before, and Friel uses them to explore this concept of endurance that Chekhov tackles in Uncle Vanya and Three Sisters where life’s ills should be accepted uncomplainingly with hope of creating a better future. Returning these characters to the centre of those narratives allow us to revisit and reinspect the finality that the ending of those plays artificially imposed on their lives.
These are conclusions that Chekhov forsees as repetitious, that routine and the unchanging continuation of their existence marks a return to normality after a brief period of disruption caused by the actions of the play. In both, external figures intrude on the emotional harmony of the household and their retreat causes the family dynamic (which existed before even the audience enters the playing space) to resettle. Friel’s work wonders how true that is and speculates on the intervening years where that very continuation of life causes ripples and effects of its own, born directly from the upheaval of the original period of the play.
For Sonya, the relationship with Doctor Astrov – so beautifully and poignantly rendered in Ian Rickson’s production at the Harold Pinter Theatre filmed for the BBC – lumbers on in Afterplay as Friel picks-up on the unresolved chemistry between them and uses it to shape Sonya’s still devoted interior life. Hearing her casually refer to him as Michael is telling, a growth of intimacy that had not existed years before, with Friel suggesting that their mutual isolation has drawn the pair together socially despite their separation at the end of Uncle Vanya.
Astrov still fills her every thought and even with a stranger most of her conversation relates to him, his work with the poor, his enthusiasm for improving environmental conditions and crucially, his alcoholism which has taken much firmer hold in the intervening years and seems to predicate his moments of devoted yet still unresolved attachment to Sonya. She suggests too that although he is still unwilling to be with her, the notional death wish remains, putting himself in danger with his patients. Her admiration for him, though less girlish, is by no means dimmed as Friel elaborates on the rich psychology of Chekhov’s characters in later life.
Andrey by contrast is less openly in control of his own circumstances and quickly admits to lying about his reasons for being in Moscow. When Afterplay opens, this is Andrey and Sonya’s second meeting, having also found themselves in this cafe on the previous day and quickly Andrey admits having misled her. When the pair meet for the third time, Andrey corrects his stories once again and further details of his experience are revealed.
This tendency to lie, Friel suggests, comes less from an enjoyment at misleading others than a desire to give and maintain an outward social impression and status – another Chekhovian theme – that reinforces an illusion of class, success or personal happiness which does not exist. That Andrey clings to these ideals repeatedly, ever conscious of the impression his life makes on others is one of Friel’s most interesting interventions looking more broadly at this contrast between an individual’s exterior and interior existence.
For lovers of both plays, there are many interesting snippets as Friel speculates on what may have happened to the other characters while musing on the consequences of abandonment, betrayal and the yearn for impossible love that Sonya, Masha and even Natasha think will bring them contentment. The denial of these longings for material connection have significant consequences for the individual’s emotional stability and ability to endure, and Friel’s subtle exploration of the afterlife of these characters chimes brilliantly with Chekhov’s intentions in stranding them at the end of his plays.
Afterplay is a brief encounter but one that affectingly considers the later life of two Chekhovian characters left just to exist at the original end of their stories. That their subsequent lives continued and will continue to be shaped by the same notions of delusion, illusion and the empty pointlessness of their repetitive existence as imagined so well in Afterplay, leaves them psychologically and circumstantially precisely where Friel found them. Chekhov does the same, the circuitous nature of his plays returning his creations back to the start, still dreaming of impossible things.
The Lights Up Festival and associated drama premieres on BBC Radio will be celebrating the breadth and creativity of the theatre industry in the coming weeks, ahead of a return to live performance. While radio plays have long attracted stage actors, they also offers new avenues for writers to try out plays exploring crucial events and experimental approaches. In a strong week for new work which also include William Humble’s two-parter, The Performer, a biographical comedy monologue read by Stephen Fry, The Meaning of Zong and Afterplay showcase the power of audio drama to transport an audience’s imagination and to see the familiar a little differently.