“Tea and sugar – can’t have one without the other.” That is the lesson of history, according to Samuel Tewkley, an affluent Irish tea merchant and Quaker. His elegant but sparse rural mansion is the setting for Elizabeth Kuti’s new play, The Sugar Wife, which examines the themes of political morality, sexual politics and philanthropy, and is also, I fancy, a meditation on the nature of happiness, writes Tan Parsons…
The play, which is making its UK premiere at the Soho Theatre, has just been nominated for Best New Play and Best Set Design in the Irish Times Irish Theatre Awards. It is set in nineteenth century Dublin and focuses on the relationships between Samuel and his wife Hannah, and their eagerly awaited guests, Sarah Worth – an emancipated slave from America’s deep south – and Alfred Darby, the philanthropic Yorkshireman who first bought and then freed her.
Despite everybody’s best intentions, it does not take long for Samuel’s compromised moral values to aggravate the righteous Alfred, and sparks soon start to fly. Even with his austere home and puritan religion, Samuel is a man of flesh and blood – as he says: “My conscience is my own.” This is the mantra by which he permits himself to dabble discreetly in such unQuakerly activities as frequenting the odd brothel and taking the occasional pinch of snuff. In a moment of fraternal weakness, however, he confides in Alfred and sets in motion a string of events that will change their lives in a most unexpected way.
Against a backdrop of the Tewkleys’ religion and the narrative of America’s slave trade, The Sugar Wife takes turns both comic and sad, exposing through painfully recognisable moments of human weakness, the main characters’ personal desires and how they clash with public façades. This subtly unveils each of the four main characters’ true motivations, and ultimately leaves them needing to reassess their values, relationships and the way they live their lives.
The deliberately plain set is brought to life with ingenious lighting techniques, with spotlights aimed up at the actors through the floorboards or down through overhead grids, and at times gives a haunting, dungeon-like feel. The soundtrack, which is played live, consists solely of notes plucked on a harp. This is used to create a wide range of effects throughout the performance, from soft, lilting melodies in the more tender scenes, through to scary, discordant buzzing in the moments of heightened tension.
Resonating with contemporary dilemmas, The Sugar Wife essentially looks at a wealthy society’s precarious balance between the aspiration to live ethically and the need to make a living. As Samuel Tewkley says, “without money, what would become of all this charity?”
The Sugar Wife is being staged by the Rough Magic theatre company and is directed by Lynne Parker. It stars Barry Barnes, Jane Brennan, Susan Salmon, Sarah-Jane Drummey and Robert Price, and will run until 11 February at Soho Theatre.