Rough Crossings @ Lyric Hammesmith, London

cast list
Patrick Robinson
Ed Hughes
Peter Bankole
Miranda Colchester
Peter de Jersey
Ian Drysdale
Dave Fishley
Andy Frame
Rob Hastle
Dawn Hope
Mark Jax
Jessica Lloyd
Michael Matus
Wunmi Mosaku
Ben Okafor
Daniel Williams

directed by
Rupert Goold
Rupert Goold is riding high at the moment on the back of his masterful Macbeth, recipient of some of the most universally glowing reviews of any Shakespeare production in some time.

Over at the Hammersmith Lyric meanwhile there’s a chance to see his production of Simon Schama’s book Rough Crossings, adapted for the stage by Caryl Phillips – and it’s a very different proposition.

Crossings tells the story of a group of former African-American slaves, who after fighting for Britain in the American war of Independence, struggle to find true freedom and a place in the world they can finally call home.

On many levels it’s a very striking production. Laura Hopkins’ inspired design has the stage bisected by a tilted wooden platform. This was raised or lowered at numerous points throughout the production, facilitating swift changes in scene. (It was also particularly successful in conveying a sense of being at sea). There are also numerous songs interwoven with the narrative and these are performed with great skill and passion indeed there are some really superb vocals, particularly from the female members of the cast. However, for everything about this production that was dynamic and powerful, its dramatic impact was considerably undercut by several rather unwieldy scenes of historical exposition.

The first half of the play concentrates on the works of abolitionists Granville Sharp and Thomas Clarkson and their campaign to create a homeland for freed slaves in Sierra Leone. Their first attempt at this is wildly unsuccessful, scuppered by corruption and a failure to integrate with the native Africans, but undeterred they try again and a second attempt is made.

However while the subject matter is fascinating, the constant cutting back and forth between narrative threads, and Phillips’ clear desire to cram in as many different perspectives and angles as possible, leads to the whole thing feeling a bit like a history lesson with everything broken down just a little too neatly rather than a compelling piece of drama.

The second half of the play is far tighter, mainly due to being narrower in focus. The play hones in on the second attempt to create a homeland for former slaves in Africa and, in particular, it focuses on the clash of personalities between the passionate, proud and defiant African-American, Thomas Peters, who insists that true freedom can only be achieved through self-rule, and the timid but idealistic Lieutenant John Clarkson, who fights doggedly for the former slaves’ rights, sacrificing much in the process, but remains unwilling to relinquish control to the more volatile Peters.

Both men are flawed and fascinating characters and Patrick Robinson and Ed Hughes spark against each other superbly in the roles; Robinson, in particular is incredibly powerful as Peters, with a very compelling stage presence. But even though this second half is a marked improvement on the first, it’s still a little too longwinded and repetitious.

Indeed, though this production succeeds in making you think about many things, about power, about the concept of home, about what really constitutes freedom, there’s a clunky quality that it never fully shakes off despite some strong performances. It sinks under the weight of trying to say and do too much.

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