Rough Crossings, Lyric Theatre, London

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As with his chilling Macbeth, which has just arrived in the West End, what strikes you about Rupert Goold’s production of Rough Crossings is his ability to create a context that holds and shapes the play.

In this case, that is no easy task. Rough Crossings is a translation to stage, by Caryl Phillips, of the Simon Schama book about slavery, the American war of independence, and the founding of Freetown in Sierra Leone.

It covers three continents, and the oceans between; its scale is both epic and closely personal; and it handles history – which doesn’t always conform to good dramatic structure.

Goold and his designer, Laura Hopkins, come up with a beautiful, simple set: a sail and a tilting deck. This is, of course, evocative of the many rough crossings of the title. But the sail also functions as a screen on which images conjure place and time.

The deck offers an open playing arena, but also tilts to reveal a lower, more intimate space.

It’s below deck that we see the slaves bound in hellish misery; here too that we see Granville Sharp studying by candlelight to forge his arguments for abolition. And Goold uses this simple set with immense skill to dart between the epic and the personal and to keep the production flowing.

His fine actors deploy ropes as props, constantly reminding you of the slaves’ bondage, and make thrilling, dignified use of hymn music.

Here the shocking story unfolds of slaves who fought for the British, yet were betrayed over the land they were promised, and of the abolitionists involved in their case.

Caryl Phillips deftly plucks out narrative strands to give the play shape and focuses on key characters and issues.

Still, the sheer weight of detail makes the first half fairly stodgy, in spite of the best efforts of Phillips, Goold and the company.

The piece lifts off dramatically in the second half, with fierce exchanges between the former slaves David George (Peter De Jersey) and Thomas Peters (Patrick Robinson) and the abolitionist John Clarkson (Ed Hughes) about how to build a free black community.

As drama, Rough Crossings has flaws, but it powerfully puts across the terrible wrongs done, and the price paid by people for the basic right of freedom.
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