In Sally Woodcock’s first full-length play, the HIV-positive Regina – the victim of a horrific gang-rape at the hands of British soldiers in Kenya – narrates the story of how her employer, white farm-owner Roger, meets and falls in love with Ronnie, yet another moneyed English graduate bent on “healing” Africa. When it transpires that both Ronnie and Regina are carrying children by Roger, racial and social tensions and hypocrisies are brought to the fore.
Ambiguity is, on one level, clearly an intentional, even integral, part of the writing; the characters say ‘yes… no… yes and no’ a lot, demonstrating that nothing is ever as clear cut as we might like. These are mixed up characters in a mixed up country and the play reflects that. But this ambiguity regularly tips over into something that more closely resembles inconsistency and confusion, and especially during the play’s early scenes, the tone of delivery varies wildly. Black, almost farcical, humour butts against moments of deadly seriousness; flippancy against tragedy. The writing fluctuates too: sometimes it’s repetitious and fragmented, with the characters finishing each other’s sentences, sometimes it’s far more naturalistic. All of this makes it difficult to ever get a grip on what the play is trying to say and how the audience are supposed to respond to these characters and their actions.
Roger, for example, seems in general to be a pragmatic and reasonable person with the capacity for great compassion. Why then, does he feel the need to hide from Ronnie that Regina’s baby is his (when she already knows they have slept together in the past), and moreover why does he stop Regina from speaking English in Ronnie’s presence? These inconsistencies of character are jarring, sometimes problematically so, and offered up without any sort of explanation.
Things settle a little in the later scenes; Woodcock fleshes out Ronnie’s character, and the play as a whole feels more cohesive. Events take a melodramatic turn as Ronnie becomes increasingly troubled and affected by traumas both past and present. The more desperate Ronnie becomes, the better Jessica Ellerby is in the role. As Regina, Kehinde Fadipe plays the most sympathetic of the characters and her performance is one of dignity and grace. Throughout the play, there are moments when she speaks directly to the audience and relates the story of her attack; it is – rightly – painful to listen to. These passages contain by far the best writing and Fadipe delivers them with a calm demeanour, creating a sense of intimacy between herself and the audience.
This play is one of complexity and provocation and Woodcock – who grew up in Kenya herself – is clearly committed to offering a deliberately ambiguous view of her themes of charity, race and social hierarchy. But for all its strengths, there are times in Gareth Machin’s production when tonal uncertainty combined with uneven storytelling render things muddled, rather than merely ambivalent.