Clarkson drama brought close to home

Breaking the Chain: Suzanne Hawkes, Playford Village HallIt was fitting that this stage account of Thomas Clarkson's role in the abolition of slavery had it first airing within a few hundred yards of where Clarkson is buried.

Breaking the Chain: Suzanne Hawkes, Playford Village Hall

It was fitting that this stage account of Thomas Clarkson's role in the abolition of slavery had it first airing within a few hundred yards of where Clarkson is buried.

Suzanne Hawkes's play, which she also directs, reminds us of the centrality of Clarkson's role in the story in spite of the unworthy efforts of Wilberforce's sons to airbrush him out.

Clarkson, as the poet Coleridge put it, was the 'moral steam engine' behind anti-slavery. He committed his whole life to the cause going to and beyond burnout point in his efforts.


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He criss-crossed the country, travelling more than 30,000 miles on horseback - collecting evidence, witness statements, and terrible instruments of punishment used in slave ships. His mission was to mobilise first a group of similar minded people - many with a focus at Cambridge University - and then to challenge the British political establishment to rid the British Empire of the evil.

Clarkson was a lobbyist, campaigner, marketing and PR man par excellence. Slavery was a huge earner for the establishment. Just imagine mounting a campaign to stop a modern equivalent. He even marketed a mantra - Am I not a man and a brother? - put on bracelets, medallions and tokens (I recently saw one advertised on eBay).

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Suzanne Hawkes's play co-features, as an ever-present troubling voice, the pre-eminent black figure in British abolition campaigning, Oloudah Equiano. Equiano was a slave who survived years of ownership and mistreatment, managing eventually to buy his freedom, come to England, prosper and marry an Englishwoman. They were wed and lived in Soham. His quite brilliant autobiography, The Interesting Narrative, was widely used by Clarkson in his campaigning . Equiano's accounts, appalling as they are - of slaves being packed in ships like sardines, of sick slaves being thrown overboard like unwanted cargo, of beatings, rape and murder - are used as dramatic imagery in Breaking the Chain.

The two central performances - with Paul Pascall as Thomas Clarkson and Michael Clarke as Oloudah are moving, considered and, where appropriate, passionate. They are helped in telling the abolition story by Thomas Haigh, Alan Dix, Lauren Morris and Suzanne Hawkes herself, all taking multiple roles, and with a screen giving us contemporary slavery images.

It's an assured, engaging evening - well worth seeing. It's also at the St Nicholas Centre in Ipswich from November 15 to 17.

Ivan Howlett

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