Theatre reviews: The Meaning of Zong | Magic Goes Wrong

Giles Terera’s The Meaning of Zong is a powerful, brilliantly-staged reckoning with our slave trading history, writes Joyce McMillan

The 11-strong ensemble in The Meaning of Zong deliver their story with a rare fluency and passion

The Meaning Of Zong, Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh ****

Magic Goes Wring, Festival Theatre, Edinburgh ***

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The opening scene of Giles Terera’s new play The Meaning Of Zong – premiered at Bristol Old Vic two weeks ago, and now at the Lyceum – offers a perfect microcosm of the theme that drives it. In a bookshop somewhere in the UK today, a young black woman finds the book she wants, about the Atlantic slave trade, on the shelf marked “African history”.

She objects; argues that the book is about British history, and how much of the imperial prosperity of the nation was built, in the 18th and early 19th centuries, on the labour of enslaved Africans. When the bookshop staff begin to understand her point, though, they become increasingly hostile.

This is Terera’s introduction to what emerges as a sweeping and brilliantly-staged tale about the life of Olaudah Equiano, the former slave who, in the 1780s, wrote Britain’s first published account of the experience of slavery; and about the case of the ship called the Zong, out of Liverpool, which inspired him to write. The Zong came to public notice in 1783, when its owners claimed insurance for the value of 132 living West African slaves whom they had thrown overboard, allegedly as an act of necessity. The insurers disputed the claim; but as the case continued – in Westminster Hall, under the eagle eye of Scottish Lord Chief Justice Lord Mansfield – the presumption that the Zong’s “cargo” could be treated simply as property began to cause mounting public outrage.

All of this is superbly brought to life in this eloquent and sometimes spectacular production, co-directed by Terera himself and Tom Morris on a magnificent shifting set by Jean Chan, which uses the similarity between Westminster Hall’s famous hammer-beam roof, and the ribs of a wooden sailing ship, to stunning effect. The eleven-strong ensemble – led by Terera himself as Equiano, and onstage musical director and super drummer Sidiki Dembele – deliver the story with a rare fluency and passion, as Equiano dreams himself into the experience of three women enslaved aboard the Zong; and the audience respond with a standing ovation, to the show’s sheer power and historical significance. Yet in a strange echo of the play’s opening scene, the audience is perhaps the smallest I have ever seen at a Lyceum opening night; suggesting a city not yet ready, perhaps, to look steadily at its own connections to the slave trade, or to see the tale of the Zong as part of its own story.

There is The Meaning Of Zong; and then there is the carefully-crafted apparent meaninglessness of the work of Mischief Theatre. Born out of the part of the Edinburgh Fringe that specialises in jolly student spoofs, Mischief Theatre have matured, over the past decade, into a formidably skilled and successful mainstage touring company, with a vast and enthusiastic following; and this latest show takes the form of a charity performance in support of the Disasters In Magic Rescue Fund, for performers devastated by accidents during magic shows.

Inevitably, though, the show – compered by Sam Hill’s poignantly useless Great Sophisticato – soon begins to go spectacularly wrong itself. The first half is frankly feeble, raising barely a titter even from an audience longing for laughs. As is the way with Mischief Theatre, though, they gradually work up the characters of their hopeless band of showbiz misfits to the point where it’s difficult not to giggle at the sheer depths of indignity they plumb. And of course, it’s easy to thrill to the moments of true conjuring magic that Mischief Theatre have brilliantly learned to deliver; in an almost casual demonstration of the level of skill that’s essential, for anyone who wants to create a show about magic gone wrong.

The Meaning Of Zong at the Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh, until 23 April; Magic Goes Wrong at the Festival Theatre until 16 April.

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