Commissioned to mark the 200th anniversary of the abolition of the Slave Trade Act, African Snow sold out its run at the York Theatre Royal earlier this year. The parallel tales of repentant trader John Newton and educated slave Olaudah Equiano are interwoven by writer Murray Watts as the two meet, both in the mind of Newton and in a possible reality – there is no proof that the two met, but it is probable. Matthew Amer attended the first night at the Trafalgar Studio 1.
John Newton is a man consumed by guilt. He has made money by trading humans. It seemed like the natural thing to do at the time; that was the done thing. But looking back the heinous effects of his actions leave him in need of forgiveness. As he sits in his room, trying to write the perfect hymn, his mind wanders and he flicks through the autobiography of freed slave Olaudah Equiano.
In his imagination Equiano's tale becomes real, as does Equiano himself, who talks to Newton, interrogating him on his choices. Israel Oyelumade's central performance as Equiano is energetic and lively with a surprising dryly comic turn. He is the beating heart of the performance, driving the show forward.
Equiano's story is important and thought-provoking. Stolen by slave traders, split from his sister who haunts his memories, he was fascinated by words and their power. Though forced into a world of servitude, he had ambition and no setback or oppression was ever enough to confine him.
Newton (Roger Alborough) does not come out favourably in this telling of his story. Even after the realisation that his previous selfish actions were not, as he previously thought, fine, he does not, until the very last moment, have the courage to publicly speak out. You can have little sympathy with his need for forgiveness.
But it is the imagery and truth of Equiano's life that stick in the mind; the cook forced to wear a muzzle to prevent her from eating, the struggle to improve himself only to be put down again, the hanging by his feet to teach him manners.
African Snow plays at the Trafalgar Studio 1 until 5 May, before touring to Mold, Birmingham, Hull, Bristol, Brighton and Ashton-under-Lyne.