Friday, August 1, 2014

'Dessa Rose' at Trafalgar Studios, 31st July 2014

A West End musical about slavery is a risky proposition.  The notion of an all-singing depiction of Southern States brings to mind Song of the South, the Disney film they'd rather we forgot.  That notion of actors dressed in slave costumes dancing about the stage for (a let's face it, predominantly white) audience's entertainment gives me cringing quivers.  So it's with relief that, by and large, Dessa Rose avoids most of these pitfalls. Most of them anyway.

The core of the story is the relationship between two women, the titular Dessa Rose, a 16 year old black slave and Ruth, a young white Southern belle.  Dessa is pregnant by her boyfriend Kaine, though after an altercation with an overseer he's perfunctorily murdered. Enraged, Dessa attacks the overseer.  She's subsequently sold to the cruel Trader Wilson, who joins to a "coffle", marching her and others in shackles across the South to be sold. On this march Dessa befriends Nathan and Harker, both of whom are quickly impressed by her defiance and courage.  

Following an abortive and impromptu uprising, Dessa is to be executed, referred to as "devil woman". Fortunately her compatriots bust her out of prison, and the group escape to Ruth's farm, who quickly sympathises with their condition.  From there we examine the fractious nature of privilege, ownership and segregation as the fugitives desperately head North to a safe state.

Studio 2 of Trafalgar Studios isn't the ideal place to stage a musical. It's small, cramped and in this weather, pretty hot.  As the cast process onto stage during the opening number, they look like sardines in a tin.  But what could have been a disadvantage quickly turns into a boon - this drama works best when it's up close and personal.  Under the baking stage lights the performers glisten with a sweaty sheen, nicely conveying the suffocating heat of the South.  

They've been given lemons and they've made lemonade - they staging going a long way to making the subject matter palatable musical material.  Staging this in a traditional theatre with proscenium arch would have the effect of dividing the audience from the performers, with the knock-on implication that their performance is for our benefit. Not so here, with the low ceilings and close proximity to the action we're physically involved in what's going on - able to examine every performative nuance.

Our closeness also allows us to get a great look at the minimalist set.  Most if it is a perfunctory series of blocks, rearrange to make chairs, beds when needed.  The centrepiece is an almost sculptural arrangement of chains rising up into a ceiling, tangled around the lighting equipment.  As the actors move in around the chains they clink together, never letting us forget the racial bondage that underscores everything we see.

It's deeply refreshing to see a musical (or for that matter, anything at all) with a strong black woman as a protagonist and Cynthia Erivo gives Dessa an irreducible core of righteousness and dignity that goes a long, long way towards making this a worthwhile experience. Everything Dessa does is shot through with honest straightforwardness, making her ascension to the de facto leader of this motley crew of outlaws seem natural and obvious.

Cassidy Janson's Ruth is an inversion of Dessa, and a slightly more thankless role to play. She's privileged, spoilt and, though she means well, a little bit dim.  Her innocence  - for example when she sleeps with one of the slaves she doesn't seem to realise that while she'd face punishment if they were caught, the slave would be killed - runs the risk of being obnoxious, but Janson gradually wins us over.  She palpably evolves in every scene, most memorably her shaken, guiltridden demeanour as realises she doesn't know her the real name of her beloved 'Mammy'.

Musically it's a bit of a mixed bag.  Dessa Rose is easily at its best when the cast are all in full swing in the impressive We Are Descended that bookends the production, a bombastic number that glues the cast together with a powerful mission statement.  Nothing else in the show comes near to that, the rest of the songbook ranging from light humour to Disneyesque balladeering.  As we see happy characters singing upbeat songs about catching trout in an idyllic Southern summer the unwanted spectre of South of the South's Uncle Remus rears his head.

The prettier and more pleasant the music becomes, the more it undermines the seriousness of the play - coming dangerously close to painting the South as idyllic.  In comparison to Steve McQueen's recent 12 Years a Slave (which has got to be at the forefront of every audience member's mind) Dessa Rose is sanitised and antiseptic.  The sight of our characters happily bouncing around the South conning foolish slave-owners out of their money by pretending to sell themselves at auction feels like a ludicrous fantasy - it's a blizzard of factors like this that keep inching proceedings towards the realm of the tasteless.

Thankfully Dessa Rose never lapses into truly problematic territory, largely due to an excellent cast that's united in their desire to eke every fragment of emotion and energy out of their roles.  Aside from the excellent Erivo and Janson I was particularly impressed by the jocular energy and commanding stage presence of Edward Baruwa as Nathan, an absolute pleasure to watch perform.  The cast should be reassured that every flaw in the show arises from the script and songsheet which (though its heart is absolutely in the right place) doesn't do the history justice.

Dessa Rose is at Trafalgar Studio 2 until 30 August 2014.  Tickets here.

Photography by Scott Rylander

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