Written by May Sumbwanyambe
Directed by Orla O’Loughlin
There’s a reason that one of the few props Enough of Him utilises is a chess board. There’s a reason that upon its second usage, the original piece colours have their players deliberately switched.
Joseph Knight. A name that should ring through Scottish history to the present, a West African slave who freed himself in the 1770s after an initial defeat. His later victory would form a foundation that the established slavery and ownership would no longer have a basis in Scots law.
An interlocking piece of four characters under the roof of a Perthshire mansion, owned by Knight’s master Sir John Wedderburn, this co-production between The Pitlochry Festival Theatre and the National Theatre of Scotland dismisses the contemporary peddling of jabbing digital discourse, enabling writer May Sumbwanyambe the opportunity to express their strategic and decisive qualification to discuss Scotland’s slave-trading past. A piece of our history, though you may not know it. Some may not even wish to know it. Encircling on Knight, whose struggle with owner Wedderburn went on to stamp legal history when Knight won his freedom: but freedom is more complex than physical bondage.
This reflection of the past is the peak of Historical playwriting within Scottish Theatre. A confrontational, intelligent, and harrowing openness to engage and preserve weaves Knight’s history so deftly through the remainder of the cast without diluting the intensity or rhythm of the script and is mesmeric to watch – both in its discomfort and moments of exultant solace. Building into the characterisation an additional form of entrapment and servitude for Wedderburn’s wife, Margaret, and of House Servant Annie Thompson find themselves; make no mistake, this is Knight’s tale, but the players who find themselves casualties of this game take no inconsequential part.
Nuanced, almost removed and re-living these events alongside the audience, Omar Austin’s balanced performance as Knight is an immediate presence – but not an overwhelming one. A being of wrought desire to secure his freedom away from his experiences in Jamaica, Austin’s emotional authenticity remains intact – even when played alongside the more bombastic energy and charm of Cartriona Faint’s comedic bitterness and eventual warmth.
In a continued denial and washing of Scotland’s heavy involvement in the slave trade, the confrontation of Enough of Him is, in moments, upfronting with brutality – not in action, but in word and imagery. But Orla O’Loughlin’s direction commands you look forward, even as we sense others in the room turn their hands in shock, disgust, and embarrassment. A de-masculinising of Wedderson, of his failures to perform sexually, hammers this endeavour into the flesh, Mathew Pidgeon’s visceral recitation is piquant; Rachael-Rose McLaren’s reserved response as wife Margaret all the more concerning and controlled.
But this removal of his supposed manhood is not played for humour, nor sympathy but acts as a masterful, perverse and sadistic account of Scotland’s history with slavery. It’s agonising but crafty in its ability to recount the vicious cruelty of colonisers to those they would call their slaves, or ‘bedwarmers’ as Wedderson so terms it for the women he assaulted.
And though tremendous amounts are conveyed with Pidgeon’s fragile, yet powerfully repulsive presence, John Pfumojena’s design makes full use of its minimalism; there is no escape for those finding despair. There is no choice but to meet Sumbwanyambe’s words. And as the looming figure-piece of wealth, an enormous period painting of a Scottish landscape – begins to gnarl, warp, to bleed like the bodies its fortune was founded upon – the beauty of the portrait washes with colour to reinforce the room, alternating from distorted abstractions of violence to a cooler, moderate and even drowned sense of foreboding and loss. In these moments, such flickers of emotion communicate more than language, though Sumbwanyambe’s writing certainly doesn’t leave the latter to chance. Nor is it left to silence where John Pfumojena’s reposed composition makes use of percussion without intrusion into the narrative.
Our venture to Knight’s campaign for freedom turns the studio space into a multi-level experience, where thus far it has safely found itself firmly on a distinct level. It makes use of the Pitlochry Studio gallery, taking the painstaking time to ensure Austin the ability to wander his eye throughout the ‘court’ as the onlookers, both audience and jury in some respects, make their choice where to look; but the least they can do is hold Austin’s gaze.
Enough of Him does not reach a satisfactory conclusion in some respects, narratively there is no definitive ‘cut’ for Knight, but rather takes its final scenes to push a vital thread of Sumbwanyambe’s narrative – one which deliberately waits until the stillness of Knight’s freedom to truly unearth itself. It takes but a slice of the narrative arc, but the personal venture for freedom cuts differently than much of the preceding production.
In this Black History Month, Pitlochry Theatre, the National Theatre of Scotland and Sumbwanyambe seek to remind audiences that as we arrive back at the present, blinking from the houselights, in this contemporary world of opportunity and affluence, we fail to recognise the ramifications of the street names we traverse, and fail once more to grasp that freedom is obtained by more than the erasure of bondage. Where the visible shackles are gone, those of memory and ignorance retain their weight, holding us back from genuine progress. A champion production with sterling performance and nuanced, intelligent construction.
A Champion Production
Enough of Him runs at the Pitlochry Festival Theatre until October 29th. Tickets for which may be obtained here.
The production then tours Catstrand, Easterhouse, Cumbernauld Lanternhouse, The Brunton Theatre, and Perth Theatre.
Photo Credit – Sally Jubb