Play inspired by story of slave who won bid for freedom in Scotland honoured at theatre awards
Now a new play recalling the remarkable story of Joseph Knight, who pursued a four-year legal battle to win his freedom in the Scottish courts, has emerged as the big winner in Scotland’s annual theatre Oscars.
Knight, who had met and married a Dundee-born servant of the sugar tycoon, made legal history in 1778 when he won his case, after two appeals, that there was no legal justification for slavery under Scots law.
May Sumbwanyambe’s play Enough of Him, which toured Scotland last year after being premiered in Perthshire, was honoured with the best new play, best production and best director prizes at the Critics’ Awards for Theatre in Scotland, which are also known as the CATS Awards.
Directed by Orla O’Loughlin, the co-production between the National Theatre of Scotland and Pitlochry Festival Theatre focused on the four-way relationship between Knight, Wedderburn, his servant girl Ann Thompson and his wife Margaret.
Mark Brown, co-convenor of the judging panel, said: “Enough of Him is an extraordinary piece about the African slave Joseph Knight and his famously successful bid to achieve his freedom through the Scottish courts.
“In the play, the hell on earth that was the slave colony of Jamaica crashes into the concocted gentility of the Scottish landowning classes.
“The drama imagines, with extraordinary power, the contorted racial, class and sexual politics that must have consumed Ballindean, the Perthshire mansion of Knight’s nominal ‘master’, the slave-plantation owner Sir John Wedderburn.
“May Sumbwanyambe has made a vital contribution to Scotland’s reckoning with its too often neglected role in the horrors of the transatlantic slave trade.
“The play expresses brilliantly the complexity of the distorted relations between ‘master’ and slave.
“The depth and intricacy of its depictions of desperately mangled, horribly unequal human relations raises it well above the well-intentioned theatre of liberal polemic.
“Its captivating complexity makes it not only a stunning indictment of the moral poison of racism, but also a work of extraordinary emotional, psychological and political immediacy.”
The Scotsman’s theatre critic Joyce McMillan, who is also co-convener, said: “Enough Of Him was a stunningly powerful and beautifully realised show, with a magnificent text, which made - and I hope will continue to make - a vital contribution to the evolving debate about Scotland’s historic involvement with the slave trade.
"The show featured superb design and music, as well as outstanding performances from Omar Austin and Matthew Pidgeon, as two men whose fractured and unequal relationship bears witness to the horror of slavery, and the damage and distortion it has inflicted, down the generations, on those whose lives were shaped by it.”
Another Pitlochry Festival Theatre was recognised when Sally Reid was honoured for outstanding performance for her starring role in a new production of Willy Russell’s play Shirley Valentine.
Stage and screen veteran David Hayman also received an outstanding performance award for his role as a Belfast Loyalist in the recent Tron Theatre production Cyprus Avenue.
John McGrath’s groundbreaking play The Cheviot, the Stag and the Black, Black Oil was honoured for making an outstanding contribution to Scottish theatre 50 years after it was first staged.
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