Photo by John Cobb. Nisha Dassyne, Hannah Douglas and David Furlong pictured
‘The Great Experiment’ is a perfect name for this show. Explicitly it is a reference to Britain’s decision to experiment with using indentured workers from India in places like Mauritius, in order to keep the cost of sugar production down following the abolition of slavery. However the show itself has an experimental and exploratory feel. This is not a straightforward history play, instead it is a piece that weaves together not just the history, but the processes and challenges involved in bringing that history to the stage.
With this production Border Crossings Company not only raises awareness of the impact the British Empire had on this particular area of migration, it also brings us very much into the modern day, and our own struggles to own and acknowledge the past. By shining a light on even this one small dark corner of British imperial history, maybe we can understand and accept ourselves better. It has to be healthier than continually glorifying a rose-tinted memory of the British Empire, and embracing exceptionalism.
Our five performers (Tobi King Bakare, Nisha Dassyne, Hannah Douglas, David Furlong and Tony Guilfoyle) play actors creating a show about the Indian indentured labourers that were sent to Mauritius to replace the slaves that used to work the sugar plantations there. How closely these actor characters resemble their true selves, I can’t say, but they do bring a sense of personal exploration very convincingly to life. And it is in the rehearsal room scenes that the discomfort and conflict of the piece lives. Shame and identity are recurring themes that both clash with, and inform, the more contemporary conversations around privilege and cultural representation.
Maria Da Luz Ghoumrassi’s choreography threads through the piece, bringing a sense of magical distance to the sections where we travel back in time to witness the experience of the indentured labourers. These brief explorations of the past feel ghostly. Names and pictures are shared, with snippets of story too intangible to get attached to. The past haunts the present, and it feels as if, as an audience, we are there simply to acknowledge it.
Michael Walling’s direction brings together the contemporary and the past in a way that doesn’t always fully flow for me. I think this is because I struggled to identify how I should be feeling, particularly in response to the varied voices from the past. I learned a lot watching ‘The Great Experiment’, and I certainly was never bored. It is an intriguing piece of theatre that fully captured my attention. I’ve been chewing on the questions it provokes since last night, and through the structure of the play, I feel I have been very much invited to look at my heritage, and how I need to own and accept the baggage that comes with it. But what is missing for me is the emotional focus of the play. It feels distant from its source material, as if the history only matters in the context of today. There is an academic quality to the piece, a rigour and intelligence that sits beneath it, at the expense of sentiment. Not that I’m saying we need this to be an overly sentimental piece, just that there is an intellectual distance to the show that prevented me from fully engaging with it.
‘The Great Experiment’ is an original, thought-provoking and intelligent work of theatre. It educates and entertains, while not being afraid of making the audience feel uncomfortable, and provoking self-reflection. It runs at the Tara Theatre until 15th February (so this Saturday) so there is only a short window to catch it there. However, the London tour continues as follows:
Playground Theatre – 18th-19th February
Cutty Sark – 21st-22nd February
Museum of London Docklands – 23rd February