MANSFIELD PARK at the Watermill Theatre
“Strong performances by Nicholle Cherrie as Fanny and Anni Domingo as Mary Prince are the heart of this impassioned and enjoyable show.”
‘The stately homes of England / How beautiful they stand / To prove the upper classes / Have still the upper hand’. So sang Noël Coward in a famously ironic lyric about the decline that led to many of these grand houses being left to the National Trust. Jane Austen’s ‘Mansfield Park’ is named after one such house, and was her third novel, published in 1814. As the National Trust has only recently acknowledged, many of these properties are intimately linked with the long and shameful history of British colonialism and enslavement.
Austen wrote her novel at a critical time in the struggle against slavery and it contains many hidden references to it. Austen herself was arguably an abolitionist and one of her favourite poems proclaimed ‘We have no slaves at home – then why abroad?’. The trade in slaves was abolished seven years before she wrote Mansfield Park, but slavery itself was not abolished by Britain until 19 years later.
Austen’s plot concerns a newly wealthy family who own a plantation in Antigua. Young Fanny Price is sent to live with her aunt and uncle at Mansfield Park where she falls in love with a cousin and is the subject of unwelcome attentions from the scheming Henry Crawford. Eventually she marries her cousin Edmund.
Two Gents Company has its roots in Zimbabwe, and in this highly original and provocative adaptation, co-writers and directors Tonderai Munyevu and Arne Pohlmeier place the stain of slavery in the spotlight. Fanny Price’s story is interweaved with that of Mary Prince, the first black woman to publish an autobiography describing her experience as a slave.
The style of the piece is inspired by apartheid era South African workshop theatre. It is being performed outdoors in the Watermill garden and the current run was preceded by a short tour to venues which included Jane Austen’s own house. Props and staging are kept simple and the always-present cast talk directly to the audience. Periodically they drop out of the play to provide commentary on it.
Strong performances by Nicholle Cherrie as Fanny and Anni Domingo as Mary Prince are the heart of this impassioned and enjoyable show. Cherrie’s work as Voice Captain shows in the vivid clarity of her engagement with the audience. In her performance, Fanny is a feisty and assertive woman typified by her exclamation at ‘the pain of falling in love with this wet man!’ Anni Domingo brings great soul and much pathos to her part as the enslaved Mary Prince.
Olivier award-winning Wela Mbusi is a commanding presence and the best cast of three who play the slave-owner Sir Thomas Bertram. In other scenes Mbusi swaps with great agility from male to female character, even playing both sides of a conversation between a man and a woman in one nicely comic scene. The remainder of the cast is made up by the accomplished Velile Tshabalala, who takes on five roles, and by Duramaney Kamara, six.
In Louise Worrall’s conceptually inspired set, on-stage action is literally framed by a great gilt picture frame beneath which a set of glistening white cube shaped furniture evokes the sugar trade.
In the first half I wasn’t at all sure why the play didn’t simply bring to life the important story of Mary Prince instead of mixing it in with this less impressive example of Jane Austen’s ‘sweet tooth for love and marriage’. But in the second half the tension within and between the two parallel stories comes to the fore with some winningly powerful writing and performance.
This interesting and polemical play ends with a passionate defence of the ‘woke’ in a scene in which Mary Prince and Jane Austen meet. ‘Beneath it all there’s blood, real blood. That blood is in our memory.’
Reviewed on 29th July 2023
by David Woodward
Photography by Nigel Glasgow
Previously reviewed at this venue: