Silver Shores opens in a week that could not be more pertinent to its subject matter. The week that saw footballer Luis Suarez suspended for racial abuse of a fellow player. The week in which Diane Abbott was accused of anti-white racism on Twitter. And, certainly most potently, the week of David Norris and Gary Dobson’s conviction for the murder of Stephen Lawrence.
In a week where the news has been so overtly concerned with race, and in which authority has been compelled to re-assert where it stands on racial issues, Silver Shores reminds us of the long history of racism in Western culture. It tells the story of three slaves taken from their homes on the coast of West Africa and their journey to new shores, and life as a possession. The plot hinges upon their conversations, and their relationship with Kayode (Tyson Oba), an educated black man who pretends to be a fellow slave to conduct an anthropological study.
If the aim of Silver Shores is in part to replicate the atmosphere and conditions of a slave ship, it does so admirably. The men’s boxes are demarcated with impossibly narrow shapes drawn directly onto the stage floor in white chalk. This show is designed beautifully and economically: white sailcloth swagging gives the impression of a low ceiling and the machinery of a ship; and sparely placed splintered decking demonstrates how the light filters through the ship’s sides and the men’s boxes. Thoroughly, expressively and sparsely it evokes the feeling of a ship, and of the extreme claustrophobia the characters endure.
The opening of the piece is also very strong in creating this atmosphere. The first five minutes of the piece, which seem impossibly long, take place in complete darkness. Initially, we hear only the weeping of Lekan (Emmanuel Akintunde), the youngest of the three enslaved men. Devoid of a visual counterpart, in the darkness the sounds of his distress become all the more potent. This sequence replicates the conditions in which the slaves would have spent almost the entire voyage: in darkness, with only the sounds of human fear and grief for company. It generates a wonderful bond between actors and audience at this early stage of the piece.
Silver Shores is not without its flaws. For me, the script was necessarily let down because the setting only allowed for narration, rather than action. Throughout the voyage, the characters are trapped in one place, meaning they can only tell stories rather than perform actions. This lends the whole piece a certain stagnation. Of course, this may be intentional: again, it replicates the atmosphere of the ship, but for me, it reduced the power of the piece. There were some wonderful moments of storytelling, such as Lekan’s tale of the wedding ceremony in his village. This would have been even more powerful if Lekan’s imagination had been enacted for us, and he had been released from his box to tell the story. Throughout the show, I struggled with the way it was written. Too often the speech was verbose, and while this may have been a nod to the more circuitous writing of the eighteenth and nineteenth century, it was sometimes difficult to follow or listen to.
That said, a real strength of the writing was character. Each of the four men we encountered was drawn well; I believed in their humanity. Performances were also strong: Emmanuel Akintunnde as Lekan and Tapiwa Madovi as the Warrior were particularly compelling and sad. Each character thematically justified his place in the piece, and was an interesting counterpoint to the others.
Silver Shores is a show worth seeing, particularly at the moment. It would be an outstanding show if it was less static, both physically and in terms of narrative. I would be interested to see what happened if the men’s imaginations were allowed to take wing and performed for us on the stage, rather than simply spoken. In spite of this criticism, this is a well performed, elegant and important show. It will stay in your head like the beat of a drum.
Silver Shores is playing at the Tristan Bates Theatre until 21 January. For more information and to book tickets see the Tristan Bates Theatre website.