Slave: A Question of Freedom

Based on the book Slave by Mende Nazer and Damien Lewis
Adapted by Kevin Fegan and Caroline Clegg
Directed by Caroline Clegg of Feelgood Theatre Productions
Unity Theatre
Tuesday 4th to Saturday 8th of October

Reviewed by Craig Woods

Winner of the 2011 Pete Postlethwaite ‘Best New Play’ Award and performed in the House of Lords in 2010, Slave – A Question of Freedom was rightly met with a standing ovation after its last showing at the Unity Theatre before it concludes its tour in Derby.

As intended, Slave is a show that truly inspires you to get involved with organisations attempting to end modern slavery (listed below). However, unlike the film deriving from the same book, the theatrical adaptation remains true to the story and thereby is more forceful in its message: namely, in the words of Mende, that she is “one of the lucky ones who has a voice and I (she) will use it to help others; no one should be bought and sold”.

The tragic story she tells begins in her village in the remote Nuba Mountains in 1994 during the Sudanese government’s decade-long, scorched-earth policy in the area. As a prepubescent child, she is abducted from her home by masked marahilin raiders before being raped and sold into domestic slavery in Arab Khartoum; as her captors remind her, she is ‘one of the lucky ones’. Ironically, they were quite right because her mistress’ sister is the wife of a Sudanese diplomat in London, to whom Mende is given after seven years of an unimaginably brutal existence. By sheer chance in London she meets a southern Sudanese exile who helps her to escape. Having had her passport confiscated by the diplomat’s wife, Mende is stateless and unable to return home. She is forced to apply for asylum but is rejected on the grounds that ‘slavery is not considered persecution’. The Home Office were forced by the resultant outcry to change their decision. However, were it not for Mende’s contact with the journalist Damien Lewis, who had long worked in the southern Sudan, it is hard to imagine that the play would have had such a ‘happy’ ending.

The production is stylistically very impressive. Rather than simply concentrating upon the harsh realities of child slavery, the play is at pains to portray the world that Mende has lost. The realism with which this is done - costume, music and issues like the Kujur (the rain-maker who remains with her in spirit during the story), arranged marriages, ornamental scarring and female circumcision - not only forces the audience to reconsider their views on the “barbarity” of such practices but also reinforces the overall point of the play. The cast of eight (Ebony Feare, Dawn Hope, Chris Jack, Al Nedjari, Eric Nzaramba, Jennifer Graham, Joe Speare and Colette Tchantcho) masterfully switch between a multitude of characters, often with starkly contrasting roles in the story.

Meanwhile Kevin Fegan and Caroline Clegg are both incredibly friendly and only too willing to discuss the production afterwards and the issues that it deals with. Unfortunately this entails learning that the last two Olympic Games gave rise to heightened levels of people trafficking and that the fate of the Nuba people is more precarious than ever because their lands lie north of the border established in July 2011. Aerial bombardments, executions, arrests, abductions, and systemic destructions continue to displace the ‘lucky ones’ and fill mass graves with the rest.

Lastly, it must be pointed out (as it was by Kevin, not Caroline) that Slave would not have been shown had Caroline not been willing to make tremendous economic (let alone emotional) sacrifices due to the dwindling level of funding provided today by the Arts Council. It is a sad state of affairs when such important theatrical productions can only occur when directors are willing to lose money promoting a message they rightly feeling so strongly about, and of which we must be more aware.

Organisations that provide information about, and ways of helping to end, modern slavery.

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