Despite being a frequent visitor to the Finborough theatre in the past five or so years, I’ve never seen the shutters open before. It was a delightful surprise to step inside and be greeted by an abundance of natural light streaming through the windows, instantly transforming the ambiance. I thought the room looked bigger; my partner thought it looked smaller. It’s remarkable how the interplay of light can shape our perspectives and offer different interpretations. Either way, the Finborough looked lovely.
Benjamin Lay (Mark Povinelli) was a Quaker and abolitionist. Born in England in 1682, he ran away to become a sailor before living in Barbados and then America. His views on slavery including ‘kidnapping’ some slave owners’ children for a brief period to show them how it might feel to have family taken, led to him being expelled from his Quaker community.
The Return of Benjamin Lay posits that now, three hundred years later, Lay reappears in a Quaker meeting, seeking to address us and make a case for his readmission. This leads the play to be full of exposition, 70 minutes of Lay both addressing us as a theatre audience, but also suggesting that we are the Quakers that he is appealing to. This mood is where the open shutters add to the production, placing us in a bright meeting space for people to come together, talk and debate and not a black box theatre, where we sit in silence, only observing. The script occasionally leans into this blurring of the lines, adding participation as Quakers; small moments of asking questions to the audience and seeking minor assistance for a costume change. His monologue becomes a defence of his life, his actions and, at times, his beliefs.
The challenge faced by this play is in its occasionally dry and hard-to-follow monologue. The incredible and fascinatingly true story of this man struggles to come through. Lay comes across as argumentative and abrasive and there are hints that this might be one of many places where he was found to be unwelcome. As the monologue jumps in time and location and mood, it becomes a jumble and a tad harder to follow.
However, it is the exceptional performance of Povinelli that breathes life into the production, as he slips between characters and times with ease, keeping the audience engaged and making a strong effort to transform what could otherwise be a mundane history lesson into something more captivating. Without such a strong performance the 70 minutes would feel a whole lot longer. It is his talent and skill that elevates the material, injecting it with a sense of vibrancy and moving the monologue from a mere recitation to a more entertaining evening, such that I left wanting to know a lot more about Benjamin Lay.
Written by: Naomi Wallace and Marcus Rediker
Directed by: Ron Daniels
Set Design by: Riccardo Hernandez
Costume and Set Design by: Isobel Nicolson
Lighting Design by: Anthony Doran
The Return of Benjamin Lay plays at the Finborough Theatre until Saturday 8 July. Further information and tickets can be found here.