Theatre reviews: Ghosts | Smile | A Space to Bless

Full of both anger and compassion, Adura Onashile’s Ghosts is an unforgettable poetic response to Scotland’s role in the slave trade, writes Joyce McMillan

Adura Onashile, creator of Ghosts PIC: Eoin Carey

Ghosts ****

Smile ****

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A Space To Bless ****

A bright spring Saturday; and I am out walking the streets of Glasgow’s Merchant City, experiencing only my second real live theatre show in more than a year. Adura Onashile’s Ghosts is a Covid-safe event, of course, for a sole audience member accompanied only by a guiding mobile phone app; and its subject is slavery, not least the role of countless exploited and unacknowledged black men and women in creating the wealth that built the cities in which we in Scotland take such pride.

Produced by the National Theatre of Scotland – with music by Niroshini Thambar, and AR visual images, projected on our phone screens, by Bright Side Studios – Ghosts begins at the Ramshorn Church in Ingram Street, where we first meet the show’s main speaker, a young black boy becoming a man in a city which, through the ages, never feels able to acknowledge his presence. With a growing poetic intensity, he leads us along Ingram Street, across to Virginia Street, into Buchanan Street, and finally down to the Clyde, with nine stops along the way to pause for poetry, images and thought.

The point of this route is that almost every street on it is named after an individual or company which made a fortune from the slave trade, or from businesses – such as tobacco and cotton – which depended on slave labour. Nor did these wealthy merchants hesitate to bring black children home to Scotland to act as household slaves and servants; as we walk between stops, we hear the simple, shocking documentary detail of advertisements posted by 18th century Scottish owners of runaway black slaves, demanding their return as if they had lost a watch or a hat.

Perhaps the single most powerful sequence, in Virginia Court, involves watching images of a dark sea ripple across our screens, while the mother of our boy speaks and sings of the experience of bearing a child in the belly of a ship, on the slave journey across the Atlantic from Dahomey; but every stop on the way has its moments of ferocious poetry, particularly towards the end, when rage over 21st century contempt for black lives begins to emerge into this historical meditation, along with a faint edge of hope, encouraged by the explicit anti-racism of the public authorities in cities like Glasgow.

Whether Scotland is yet quite ready for Onashile’s relatively poetic and abstract approach to the subject may be debatable; the show contains no direct information about the men for whom those Merchant City streets are named, or why those locations have been chosen. For those who are already aware of Scotland’s historic connections to the slave trade, though, Ghosts comes as an unforgettable poetic response to that emerging narrative; full of anger, compassion and vision, and a cry for justice and recognition that can finally no longer be ignored.

There’s a certain irony, meanwhile, in watching the new film version of Dundee’s Rep’s 2020 hit, Smile, at a time when football fans across Europe fear they are about to be robbed of the system that produced some of the world’s greatest football. Written by Philip Differ in honour of Dundee United’s legendary manager Jim McLean, who in the 1970s and 80s took his club to the heights of European football, Smile is a superb 60 minute two-handed drama which takes us deep into the mind of a famously furious and unbending manager, whose thoughts on the new Super League would surely have been completely unprintable.

As in last year’s stage show, Dundee Rep ensemble member Barrie Hunter delivers a fascinating, brilliant and deeply moving central performance as the tempestuous McLean. It’s also, though, worth noting the sheer quality of the film-making in this first production from the new Rep Studios digital platform; filmed on the beautiful main stage of the Rep itself in a powerful and gorgeously-lit dramatic tribute to one of Scotland’s most enigmatic football heroes, now sadly – since last December – no longer with us.

Whether we are fully aware of it or not, we have all been capsized to some extent by the traumatic events of the past year; and no theatre-maker is more committed to facing those changes head on than the playwright and performer Jo Clifford. For Clifford, the extent of the crisis we face – including climate breakdown, and the need not to return to a self-destructive “normal” – demands something more than conventional theatre; something more akin to religious ritual, that explicitly offers us a safe and loving shared space in which to contemplate the extent of the change that is needed.

Recorded every day last week in St Mary’s Cathedral at Palmerston Place, Edinburgh, Clifford’s A Space To Bless therefore offers an hour-long cycle of five daily prayers, meditating on how we need to think and feel in order to face the changes to come. As in all rituals, there is repetition and meditation; but also a gradual progression through concepts of pain, suffering and loss towards communion and renewal. We can ask whether this is theatre, or rather more like a church service, conducted by a very powerful and radical celebrant. It’s perhaps wiser, though, to recognise that we may be entering times when that distinction no longer matters so much; so long as the shared experience involved enables us to think and feel together, and to gather strength for the mighty challenges ahead.

Ghosts app available from Monday 26 April at https://www.nationaltheatrescotland.com/events/ghosts. Smile at https://dundeerep.co.uk until 16 May. A Space To Bless available until 26 April at https://www.queenjesusproductions.com/livestream-page

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