salt. (Royal Court, until June 1st)
As the performer smashes a large piece of rock salt to smithereens with a sledgehammer and pounds it with a pestle over the course of 75 minutes it would be easy to think Selina Thompson’s salt .is an angry monologue, full of only sound and fury.
In fact, this rage against colonialism, racism, capitalism, history and the slave trade is far more subtle. Amid the anger and pain is a poetic reflection on a journey of discovery, thoughts about a shattering odyssey, an outpouring of grief and frustration transformed into a work of art.
The inspiration for this provocative and powerful piece of drama is a voyage Thompson (using her adult passport for the first time at the age of 25) and Hayley, a film-maker friend, made in 2016, two artists on a cargo ship wanting to retrace one of the routes of the Transatlantic Slave Triangle from Bristol to Ghana to Jamaica, and back.
Fuelled by a sense of not fully belonging (“but where are you from…?” is a question repeated again and again) and an interest in discovering roots the trip becomes emotionally and physically burdensome, with shocking revelations about the present and the past.
This is more than a story about black British identity: it is a well-constructed cry from the heart for humanity to understand where home truly is and to find words and meaning for the unfathomable as life’s journey takes us inexorably forwards.
salt. is an interesting blend of artistic forms – part performance art, part theatre, part historical narrative. Stories are recounted – memories of family, experiences at airports, the racist taunts of the crew on the freight ship, the haunting visit to Elmina on the Ghanaian coast, one of the most important stops on the route of the Atlantic slave trade – and eulogies are delivered as this epic quest for understanding unfolds. Each scene is a brilliant observation, a caustic aside, or a traumatic epiphany. It is never going to be an easy ride for the audience or the actor as raw nerves are exposed and untended.
Describing it as an artistic adventure might belittle the shocking reality of it all, which the play itself never shies away from. The central journey was about two women on a ship in a strictly male environment, where they were often regarded as sex workers, and treated terribly, suffering exhaustion and boredom in a small space. Let it never be said that the poetic sea voyage was ever romantic, nor the experiences on land in Ghana and Jamaica.
Thompson has previously performed this herself, but at the Royal Court Rochelle Rose plays the Woman, graciously allowing the writer’s words to speak out but also bravely understanding and conveying the deeply-felt outrage and anguish as if personally experienced. “This is her monument. This is her act of remembrance. This is her grief. Entrusted to me, so that the task of carrying it might be communal…”
It’s a strong and measured performance in a production which director Dawn Walton ensures is never less than absorbing. What could so easily be a rant is more of a response (whether furious or reluctantly accepting) to oppression, obsession and suffering. Katherina Radeva’s design reflects the triangular journey of the scattered generation, while the throbbing and thrumming soundtrack by Sleepdogs is an effective aural backdrop.
If the largely white audience feels in the remotest bit discomfited by the tone and content it is an even harder conclusion which realises there are no easy answers – indeed, there may not be answers at all. As the story ebbs and flows, we realise that this woman is not waving but drowning and there is no lifebelt to hand – the nearest thing to it is a wreath of decaying flowers and foliage.
Members of the audience are allowed to take a chunk of salt from a basket held by Rose at the end and it’s an appropriate memento as it represents so much in the play: diaspora, healing, soothing, nourishment, mourning, buoyancy, debridement, sweat, tears, breaking down the past, a commitment to living and more.
There is a sense that while there will never be healing, there may be redemption. This lyrical production of salt. Is something to savour even if the aftertaste of its themes and content cannot be anything but a demanding and challenging theatrical work.
Image: Johann Persson
A version of this review originally appeared on The Reviews Hub http://www.thereviewshub.com/