David Burnett and Mimi Ndiweni in 'Jefferson's Garden'
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How do you write a successful history play? For her sprightly new drama Timberlake Wertenbaker takes her lead from a certain Mr Shakespeare. The action opens, as does Henry V, with an appeal from the chorus for dramatic licence: “We have to ask you to be gender-blind, colour-blind, age-blind, shape-blind, but in all other ways perceptive,” they say. It’s a delightful, witty opening and it sets the tone for a play that picks its way nimbly through the complexities of the American War of Independence and interweaves weighty themes with theatrical mischief.

Broadly, the drama follows Christian, a young idealist who leaves his Quaker family to join the fight against British rule: a move for which he is ostracised from his community. He breaks his own principles, most crucially his vow not to kill, in honour of what he perceives to be a greater one, and is then appalled when his hero, Thomas Jefferson, does not press for equality for slaves.

This is, as all good history plays, a drama about now. Wertenbaker suggests that many inequalities that still plague the US derive from the key failure to enshrine liberty and equality for all, including slaves, in its constitution. But the play has wider resonance still: the call of freedom, the urge to revolution, the disillusionment with subsequent compromises — these are still live issues all over the world. How do you start a society without betraying the very ideals that inspired you?

By focusing tightly on a few individuals, Wertenbaker homes in on the painful struggles between principle, pragmatism and personal interest, and explores the contradictions in human nature that snap at the heels of idealism. Meanwhile, her chorus are ever present to puncture pomposity, quibble over historical facts and remind us of the crucial role of language in shaping interpretation.

In Brigid Larmour’s airy, simple production, David Burnett as Christian and William Hope as Jefferson convey their characters’ complex, conflicted natures. Burt Caesar suggests the quiet dignity and Mimi Ndiweni the fierce integrity of two slaves who insist on their own freedom. And around them a versatile ensemble depicts the turbulence of a country in the grip of vast upheaval. A few plot twists too many slow the play down, but this is a rich and generous drama about the elusive nature of freedom.


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