The Women of Llanrumney review – blistering dissection of slavery as the sugar crop fails

the women of llanrumney review – blistering dissection of slavery as the sugar crop fails

Seems to contain two plays at the same time … l to r, Keziah Joseph (Cerys), Nia Roberts (Elizabeth) and Suzanne Packer (Annie) in The Women of Llanrumney. Photograph: Ana Pinto

The Women of Llanrumney is a blistering full-length debut play by Azuka Oforka. Conceptually dexterous and containing four astute and fearless performances, it marks Oforka as an urgent and important voice in Welsh theatre.

While the Llanrumney sugar estate in St Mary, Jamaica, was real, the narrative of Oforka’s historical play reimagines it under the ownership of the unwed and independent Elizabeth Morgan (Nia Roberts). Housekeeper Annie and her pregnant daughter Cerys (Suzanne Packer and Keziah Joseph) are enslaved in her service, but when the sugar crop begins to fail safety becomes brutally conditional for all three.

Like a trio of Mothers Courage, patriarchy, colonialism and capitalism forcethem into making accommodations and although what is at stake differs for all three, self-preservation comes at almost unimaginable cost for all. Who the villains of the piece might be is never in doubt, but the play resists easy caricatures; these are characters of complexity, containing competing and contradictory imperatives even when the tone demands that they be drawn in broad hues. While Matthew Gravelle gamely performs all three male roles in three distinct accents, the three remarkable female performances are searing: whole worlds shift on single lines and sudden glances.

What is most striking about Oforka’s deft text is that it seems to contain two plays, both performed simultaneously. The first is tonally akin to a farce, of powdered wigs, society gossip and elaborate breakfasts, reinforced by Stella-Jane Odoemelam’s single dining room set where the stage action mostly consists of setting and clearing tables.

But the second play is a more urgent drama, played out sometimes in subtext only, through self-effacing stillness and downcast gazes, where women seem to literally disappear into the walls. Patricia Logue’s incisive direction seems to suspend both worlds within a single room, but when the rupture inevitably comes it is shocking in its grotesqueness. Nauseatingly graphic in word and action, but never gratuitous, this is a play that demands an audience bears witness. Despite the historical setting, its tenor is unambiguously contemporary. The remainder of the run is currently sold out, and deservedly so.

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