Thursday, February 26, 2015

'Yarico' at the Eel Brook Theatre, 25th February 2015

The 18th century comic opera Inkle and Yarico is an important piece of theatre. First staged in 1787, it tells the tragic tale of Yarico, an Amerindian girl who saves the life of Inkle, a marooned English trader. The two fall in love, marry and make plans to return to London together. Unfortunately Inkle turns out to be a complete shit and sells Yarico into slavery. 

A spectacular success, the humanist themes fed neatly into the growing anti-slavery movement. Yarico's sad predicament, snatched from paradise, lied to by disreputable white traders and sold as chattel, works as a simple parable that exposes the immorality and greed of the slave traders while accentuating the humanity and nobility of those enslaved. It's popularity spread across Europe and North America, the show helping bolster public opposition to slavery, all of which culminated in the 1833 Slavery Abolition Act.

Now, with the admirable intentions of both educating audiences on the history of slavery and exploring how this tale remains relevant in 2015, Yarico is resurrected as a modern musical. The skeleton of the story - innocent island girl betrayed into slavery - remains the same, yet with a few modern wrinkles. This Yarico (Liberty Buckland) is a native Caribbean islander who rescues inveterate gambler Inkle (Alex Spinney). They fall in love, as does Yarico and Inkle's best friends Nono (Tori Allen-Martin) and Cicero (Jean-Luke Worrell).

Plans are quickly drawn up to sail to Bridgetown, Barbados and then onto the spires of London. Yarico can't believe her fortune; having learned English from a lost copy of The Complete Works of Shakespeare she's something of an Anglophile. But she'll never see London. Inkle, drawn into a below-decks game of dice bets Yarico on a roll of the dice. Soon she's eking out a miserable existence on Governor Worthy's (Adam Vaughan) sugar plantation, her knowledge of Shakespeare marking her as a 'pet' for the snootily cruel Lady Worthy (Charlotte E Hamblin).  But with a slave revolt quietly bubbling up in the plantation, Cicero and Nono plotting to free her and a despondent Inkle reappearing perhaps there is hope yet?

If shows were judged on their principles this would deserve unanimously rave reviews. But they're not, and despite the obvious best intentions of cast, crew and producers I'm sad to report that Yarico simply isn't very good. 

Problems begin in the opening scenes, in which Yarico and Nono bemoan the tedium of island life. There's an irritating 'Carry On' tone to these early scenes, the native tribe played for laughs with songs about fishing and hammocks. Actors lounge about the stage in modernish clothes looking like student backpackers, the only concession to 'tribal'-ness the odd swipe of white face paint somewhere on their bodies. 

At this point the tone is stuck firmly in campy sex comedy, with Nono excitedly spouting innuendo about spending weeks at sea being "sprayed with salty sea foam".  A couple of minutes later we're thrown into the middle of a traumatic slave auction. This tonal mismatch continues throughout and largely serves to undermine the drama. It's as if 12 Years a Slave had seen fit to give Solomon Northup a dopey comedy sidekick who'd periodically spout pidgin English and trip over stuff.

By and large, the more Yarico skews to the dramatic the more tolerable it becomes. Fortunately the second act amps up the seriousness. It's here that Liberty Buckland, adrift in the early scenes, finds the pathos and misery in her character. Almost every successful moment in Yarico comes courtesy of her considerable talents, scratching out tragedy from within this mixed-up script.

Unfortunately that doesn't compensate for whatever else is going on in the play. The scenery, consisting of a couple of bamboo sticks dangling from the ceiling, does little to convey the tropical Caribbean. Nor does a performance space that looks suspiciously like an S&M dungeon: with a tacky black vinyl floor and walls covered in (what appears to be) black electrical tape.

The score and book are, for the most part adequate. The early, cheery songs are a bit brainless, but I can enjoy a simple song about a hammock. More lamentable is Chocolate, in which sinister plantation owners use eating chocolate as a metaphor for raping their slaves. The easy highlight is Spirit Eternal, especially the final performance featuring the whole cast that impresses because of its volume and palpable sincerity.

Yarico is a classic case of noble intentions colliding with poor execution. I agree that the story should be better known, that it's historically important and that it has contemporary relevance (slavery still being very much a problem). But this production bites off more than it can chew, leaving us with a tonally screwed-up, cheap looking and often tedious experience.

If only could you run a show on sincerity alone...


Yarico is at the Eel Brook until 14th March. Tickets here.

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