Feels a bit disingenuous to write with certainty about a play that takes such pleasure in wrong-footing its audience and complexifying itself. Even the play’s premise is a historical and societal minefield.
In act one we meet Sarah Bonetta Davies, aka Sally as she is known to Queen Victoria who adopted her – aka Aina, as she was called when she was a child princess in Nigeria. She’s just got married and is packing up to go back to ‘Africa’, presumably Nigeria. (Information pops up unannounced in this play, as if it knows exactly when to make the best entrance). Donna Berlin carries much of this act’s humour as the nervy Croydon cook Aggie who Sarah is training as her maid. It’s all a bit Oscar Wilde. In act two, Berlin plays Sarah, a structural engineer living with her husband James (Dave Fishley) in contemporary Cheshire. They’re the only black family around. They’ve adopted a white daughter. So far so singular.
Each acts proceeds as though slowly devouring itself, top-heavy with borderline-tedious discussions and accelerating into misfiring confrontations. When neighbour Harriet and her husband Ben visit Sarah and James (Knock Knock. Who’s There? Impending White Woman Tears!) we’ve reached peak misfire – a dense, hilarious and destabilising slice of absolute hell.
Harriet is so caught up in lacquering herself with inaccurate wokeness that she hasn’t taken a single moment to examine her racist behaviour. Rebecca Charles nails the familiar and suffocating sincerity, and some honest-to-god horrific dancing. But Janice Okoh is clearly not interested in peddling out tropes. Ben is a right-wing ‘political correctness gone mad’ type, and he comes out with surprisingly sensible anti-racist takes. Sarah and James have harmful attitudes towards blackness. Whose side to take? No sides. No assumption that any one view implies another. An anti cancel-culture treatise if ever I saw one.
Okoh’s characters offer no reassuringly simple viewpoints – on ethnicity, on Empire, on family, or even on their own desires. Values and loyalties spar within individuals, and what conflict arises is not so much a clash between people but individual implosions. It may offer a wilfully (and unrealistically?) dissonant patchwork of morals, but the effect is still incredibly frustrating, and refreshingly challenging.
I can almost hear a narrator floating above the grand high white frame around the stage sighing, “Yeah, humans be like that.”
By the time the third act begins, the work has been done. Where the play has been internal shouts into the darkness, this one is actual shouts, as Sarah Davies tries to reconcile her relationship with the Queen and with her heritage. The effect is, frankly, a bit less interesting. Davies, until now the picture of a prim well-trained royal lets her feelings erupt, Shannon Hayes giving her all the ragged confusion and helplessness of a woman grappling with her adoptive mother also being the Chief Colonialist. But this is mainly spelling out what the first two acts already achieved. Maybe you need this bit if you don’t know what it’s like to be black in a place that is irreconcilable with your reality, and can’t imagine it either? The two Sarahs are privileged, without peer, and still utterly trapped. Freedom within confines.
The more you dig your nails into The Gift the more it reveals, and the more it hurts. Dawn Walton’s production embraces levels, layers and structures that go beyond words. Thankfully. Ignoring them won’t do anything to pick apart their power.
The morning of watching this play I randomly, or subconsciously, who knows, picked out a book that’s been on my shelf for two years. It’s the autobiography of Olaudah Equiano, former American slave and should-be famous British abolitionist. I thought about the threads that run through our own lives and further back through history. Deep historical and personal cracks that can be traced to their first impending blow.
There’s one huge historical and personal crack that The Gift seems to trace above all, as clearly to me as gold-leaf under the stage-lights: once upon a time some profit-oriented men invented a fundamental difference between being Black and being, what would only later become, white. That difference is as fictional as it ever was and will be, but the socialisation of that difference is a fissure that continues on into the present.
The Gift is on at Belgrade Theatre, Coventry until 25th January. It tours England until 11th March. More info here.