The Leviathan from a play by Winsome Pinnock opens with a meditation on a painting of a slave ship by JMW Turner inspired by the Zong massacre of African slaves in 1781. An actress and artist stand in a gallery, our days, speaking of bearing witness to the horrors of black British history and all that is still hidden in plain sight.
The emphasis on this openness turns into a tidal wave of intrigue, ideas and characters with parallel stories in the past and present that incorporate the slave trade and its abolition as well as debates on the politics of storytelling and representation, Turner’s life and politics, and remembering – or forgetting – the dark trauma.
Directed by Miranda Cromwell, the production had two previous lives, first at the Royal Exchange Theater in Manchester where it was cut to a preview due to the first foreclosure, and then as an audio piece, which aired a few days after the overthrow of the statue of Edward Colston in Bristol.
Over a year later, it is a relief to see the history of slavery in Britain dramatized on stage rather than the many other slavery stories imported from the United States that make it seem like its heritage is theirs, not ours. Britain’s slave past is not dead, it is suggested here, but bleeds into the present and terrorizes it. “The woman in the painting has moved,” actress Lou (Kiza Deen) tells artist Essie (Rochelle Rose), indicating the direction the piece will take.
Today, actors rehearse a movie called The Ghost Ship as the past revolves around a family who lived in slavery until abolition, alongside Turner himself (Paul Bradley).
Laura Hopkins’ clear set design consists of a stripped wooden floor resembling the bare deck of a ship. There’s an ankle-deep pool of water at one end that evokes the salty sea grill despite its shallow depth.
The past first coexists with the present, then shatters it when dead figures appear alongside the living – Turner’s late mother, for example, hangs over the stage like a gothic mermaid. The surreal and the playful meet violence and cruelty and there is a wonderfully unexpected spirit and magical realism.
The richness of the overlapping stories – many on the narrative itself – gives the drama an exciting and anarchic side, but also creates cerebral circles within the circles; the characters multiply as the cast doubles over time and speak with some duality of their own stories and a larger story, until the play seems to list and rock with weight of all that.
There are still many strong moments and the actors bring an immense conviction: a mother remembers the pain of her son sold to become “the pet” of a white family. Historical figures dance a quadrille while a contemporary couple spins to the sound of a punchy bass in a mixture of time and space. Violence is not exerted on the bodies of slaves but next to them – so that a woman’s oppressor lashes the ground a few feet away from her. It’s a stark contrast to the excruciating whip scene in 12 Years a Slave. The scene has great power and is arguably a way around what Lou calls “torture porn” in slavery stories.
The play looks like a giant creation, complex and moving at the end, its epic ideas, its radical ambition, its history containing multitudes.