POSSESSION at the Arcola Theatre
“Sasha Hails’ script is brave and confident.”
On a muggy Monday night, we descended into the bowels of the former paint factory. Steep rakes on either side of the stage, coupled with the stage floor being covered in a rough textured sand paper, evoked a gladiatorial event. People fanned themselves with programmes, murmuring about the warmth. And then the play began. From the first scene, where a pregnant woman remains still and strained, against a busy motif of a London train, Possession had the audience in the palm of its hand.
Possession is a mutli-generational collection of moments, which come together to tell the story of a life, and a country. It is at once personal and political, both a call to arms, and a quiet tragedy.
We follow Hope (Diany Samba-Bandza), who is both protagonist and narrator. Hope is born at Victoria station to Kasambayi (Sarah Amankwah) newly arrived from the Democratic Republic of Congo. Hope’s path later crosses with Alice Young (Dorothea Myer-Bennett), a foreign correspondent who is struggling to juggle her work and being a new mother. Into this contemporary world is weaved the story of Alice Seeley-Harris (also played by Myer-Bennett), a Victorian missionary’s wife in King Leopold’s Congo. Across London and the DRC this story unfurls itself, not relying on linear narrative, but following theme and character, to build a complex and rich portrait of these women.
Sasha Hails’ script is brave and confident. It sweeps across generations and characters, knitting together a past and a present, with hopes for the future. There are moments where it could feel weighed down with exposition, there is a lot of discussion about the cobalt mines in modern day DRC and the atrocities that are associated with them. But it doesn’t. The script is informative and impactful, without slipping into preachiness.
The spirit and passion of the play is let loose through Oscar Pearce’s direction and Sarah Beaton’s design. Every inch of the space is used and there is an incredible sense of movement while also allowing for moments of pause and reflection. Photographs are projected onto flowing jagged sheets which hang at the back of the stage. These are a combination of the photographs that the real Alice Seeley-Harris took, and present-day photos of the characters. The whole effect enhances the tangle of time which the play explores.
It is a tight, strong ensemble of five. Nedum Okonyia shows an impressive range, traversing ages, eras and nationalities with equal energy and poise. Milo Twomey shines as a conflicted Victorian missionary as well as bringing depth to Alice’s journalist lover who is essentially a sounding board for her inner conflict.
However, it is the three women who really steal the show. Samba-Bandza is warm and bubbly, which sets the tone for the whole piece. Myer-Bennett straddles the two generations, bringing to life the age-old question of a mother’s place and allows the audience the chance to empathise, if not necessarily sympathise with her characters. But the real star is Sarah Amankwah. We watch as Kasambayi, a quiet, proud and incredibly private woman, is empowered and emboldened to tell her story, and to grow beyond the horrors of her past. Amankwah brings a stillness to the frenetic movement of the play, and an undertone of quiet wisdom and grief.
Possession is a tapestry of memories, an informative and fascinating story, and a beautiful character study.
Reviewed on 19th June 2023
by Auriol Reddaway
Photography by Alex Brenner
Previously reviewed at this venue: