National Theatre to tackle Scotland's slave trade history as 2020 programme is revealed

The National Theatre of Scotland is to confront the country's slave trade past with two major new shows as part of its 2020 programme.

Glasgow-based actor, writer and director Adura Onashile has created Ghosts for the National Theatre of Scotland. Picture: Niall Walker.
Glasgow-based actor, writer and director Adura Onashile has created Ghosts for the National Theatre of Scotland. Picture: Niall Walker.

Theatre-goers will be led on a new guided tour of Glasgow which will see their mobile phones become "a window to meet the ghosts of the city's painful past and its effect on the present."

Immersive theatre project Ghosts, which will be staged next November, will see striking images exploring the city's "often unspoken history" projected onto the walls of the Gallery of Modern Art (GOMA), to reflect how it was built as a home for tobacco and sugar merchant William Cunninghame.

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A separate show will explore the little-known true story of Joseph Knight, an African man sold as a slave in Jamaica to a wealthy Scottish plantation owner, John Wedderburn, and brought back to work on his Perthshire estate.

New multi-media project Ghosts will tackle Glasgow's 'often unspoken history' with the international slave trade.

The show will recall how Knight would go on to be the key figure in a landmark legal case which challenged his status as a slave in Scotland and paved the way for the abolition of slavery in Britain.

NTS unveiled plans for the two shows today in the wake of growing awareness and acknowledgement of Scotland's long and profitable links with the international slave trade in the 18th and 19th centuries.

Last year it emerged that Glasgow University had agreed to pay £20 million in reparations in recognition of the financial support it had received from people whose wealth was partly built on slavery.

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The city council is also exploring proposals to create a slavery museum in Glasgow to reflect the role the slave trade had in its development, particularly the Merchant City, and its links to thoroughfares like Buchanan Street.

May Sumbwanyambe's Enough of Him will explore the true-life story of an African-born slave brought to a Perthshire estate by a wealthy plantation owner.

Glasgow-based actor, writer and director Adura Onashile, who is creating Ghosts for NTS, also been cast in the lead role of Medea for a revival of Liz Lochhead’s acclaimed adaptation of the classic Greek tragedy, which will be staged at next year’s Edinburgh International Festival.

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Ghosts will use the latest augmented reality technology to tell the story of a young boy fleeing through the streets of 18th century Glasgow.

Onashile, who has spent about seven years researching Glasgow's slave trade past, said: "I really want to say something about the scale of it and how many lives were affected, which often gets forgotten about. People don't have any idea of how much the city prospered from slavery.

"We want to treat Glasgow as a character that is nudging its inhabitants to remember something they would rather ignore. There is a sense that because it was such a fundamental part of Glasgow's history the fact we don't know enough about it can't be be doing us any favours or the city any favours."

"People will be able to download an augmented reality app on their mobile which will allow them to follow a young boy through the Merchant City as he hides in various spaces and tries not to be found.

"When you point your phone at certain locations your phone will become animated and at other locations you will walk through a doorway to step into a complete world to hopefully look at the idea of excavating some locations.

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"As we find out about his history we also find out also about the city's history. But we also want to move it from being a historical guide to Glasgow to bring it right to date and look at where the money trail from slavery ended up today.

"The walk will talk an hour and there will also be a 15-minute show projected onto the walls of GOMA, which will hopefully be pretty spectacular and will be able to be seen by people who are just walking through the Merchant City.

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"In my mind, Glasgow will feel like a completely different city once you have finished the journey and the audience we will also feel different themselves. It will hopefully be the classic thing of 'once you see it you cannot unsee it."

Pitlochry Festival Theatre is hosting the premiere of Enough of Him, Edinburgh-born writer May Sumbwanyambe's play about the complex relationships between Joseph Knight, John Wedderburn and his wife, and Annie Thompson, their servant that Knight fell in love with and married.

NTS has billed Enough of Him, which will tour to Perth Theatre and the Festival Theatre in Edinburgh next autumn, as a "compelling domestic drama focusing on the power dynamics at play between slaves and free men, servants and masters, and husbands and wives."

The play, which is is being brought to the stage by NTS after a radio play based on Knight's story by Sumbwanyambe was broadcast on Radio 4 last year, will have clear echoes with the debates around Brexit, according to the writer.

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Sumbwanyambe said: "There is a real indictment about not knowing our own history in Scotland - it's really because we've not been taught it at all.

"But there is a big push in the academic world at the moment to shake Scotland out of its amnesia.

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"I've always been fascinating by the history of black people in Scotland but when I started working on this project it actually shocked me how little I knew about the story of Joseph Knight.

"There is actually a myth that black people have only been part of this country for a short very short of period time.

"The only way we can contend with that in the arts and make a contribution that is really relevant and impactful is actually find these black people, who had significant lives and played a significant role in the culture and development of society, and write plays about them.

"The really fascinating thing when I discovered during my research is that when Joseph Knight was fighting for his freedom there were arguments being made that Scotland would be inundated with immigrants who would come here and pollute the country's genetics.

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"There really is something about the way history repeats itself if we don't know our own history."

Other highlights of the NTS programme include an adaptation of An Enemy of the People, the 19th century play by Norwegian writer Henrik Ibsen, by award-winning Glasgow playwright Kieran Hurley.

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The Enemy will relocate Ibsen's story to a "once great Scottish town," will explore what happens when a dangerous secret emerges over a major new development which promise to transform the local community's fortunes. The show, which will star Gabriel Quigley, will go on tour to Lanark, Clydebank, Darvel, Dunoon, and Dumfries.

Maverick theatre-maker Rob Drummond's next Edinburgh Festival Fringe show - Who Killed Katie? - will explore the growing public fascination for true crime stories by asking the audience to deliver their verdict on a gruesome case.