Daniel Francis, Ryan Early, Clare Perkins, Steve Jackson, Howard Charles, Luke Jardine, Richard Pepple, Laura Power
The reputation of West Yorkshire’s police force has taken quite the battering of late.
So with the furore surrounding last week’s airing of controversial ITV drama Red Riding, it is hardly surprising that Eclipse Theatre’s even more scathing critique has largely slipped under the national radar.
Based on Kester Aspden’s book of the same name, published only last year, The Hounding of David Oluwale tells the tragic tale of its namesake – a 38 year old Nigerian man who was continuously persecuted by the police during the 1960s.
After a minor brush with the law escalated into imprisonment and institutionalisation, he was thrown back onto the unforgiving streets of Leeds as a certified schizophrenic, and forced by circumstance to sleep rough.
His vagrancy only fuelled the fire for the police. They hounded him out of their city time after time, and eventually into the River Aire – from which his battered body was dragged out in 1969.
In Oladipo Agboluaje’s stage adaptation, a multi-tiered urban stage set and some imaginative sound design bring this cruel world – “the epitome of Northern misery” – to life in a way that is highly vivid and very real.
The play exposes the complicity of the police in the death of their “playmate”, as they called him, by dramatising the Scotland Yard inquest that would eventually find two officers guilty of assault – though they escaped charges of murder. A rather disappointing verdict, one comes to think.
Agboluaje has (happily) avoided the verbatim drama that might seem the natural choice given the play’s quick turnaround from page to stage. Instead he has chosen to resurrect Oluwale as the driving force of the narrative, and a wise choice it was too.
A colourful character by all accounts, he vibrantly embellishes the rather boring matter of the inquest with scenes from his life and past. Yet while this device is powerful, and the scenes beautifully realised – it also carries the play’s only (slight) flaw.
By spinning a tale which consists largely of imagined dialogue from the mouth of a dead man, Agboluaje runs the risk of romanticising his protagonist to villainise the police.
But to tone down Oluwale would surely be to detract from the power of this mesmerising drama, since his exuberance and charisma are what make his fate so overwhelmingly tragic. Daniel Francis’s portrayal is flawless: he displays immense talent as he deftly slips between Oluwale’s changing faces with each geographic and temporal shift.
From a wide-eyed youth in Africa, to a charmer in the Bradford dancehalls he cuts an endearing figure from the start, and provides the lashings of good humour that a play of this sad nature so needs. But these glimmers of his early spirit are also what make his decline into tortured destitution truly heart-breaking to witness.
Our knowledge of his sad fate means everything in the play is inflected with dramatic irony, and his mother Alice’s prayers are particularly poignant: (“You will not fall. The wicked shall look for you, but they shall not find you. You will come home”).
Claire Perkins plays her with a quiet strength, while elsewhere, Ryan Early plays the world-weary inquest officer Perkins with great empathy. Steve Jackson gives a slightly stiff, but appropriate, performance as Sergeant Kitching, the “thuggish hypocrite” responsible for Oluwale’s persecution alongside Sergeant Elleker (Luke Jardine).
Though the play clearly holds these two culpable for Oluwale’s fate, it also skirts a breadth of other issues. It holds up the effect of institutionalisation and the socio-economic tendencies of the era and makes a powerful comment on each that will still resonate today.
Although none of the questions it can raise can serve Oluwale with justice, it can, at least, provide a fitting tribute to his memory at long last.