Edward Rushton (1756–1814) was Liverpool’s most implacable anti-slavery abolitionist, human rights activist and pioneer for disability rights. If like Susan Bennett, you had not heard of him, then Saturday 22 November at DaDaFest gave an opportunity to catch up with three events highlighting the bicentenary, social activism and legacy of the man, including a rehearsed reading of 'Unsung' a new play inspired by his life
Written by John Graham Davies and James Quinn, using Bill Hunter’s study ‘Forgotten Hero’, this new play portrays Edward Rushton as both a youth and a mature adult. He is a man tortured by scenes in his head from his youth on slave ships and undergoes painful operations to restore his sight so he can replace these visions with the faces of his wife and children.
He is also the strong defiant driver of abolitionism who resists attempts by local traders to water down his approach to appease the powerful slave traders in Liverpool. His impact was far-reaching and is still felt today. He even wrote to George Washington to upbraid him for supporting the slave trade, but did not get an answer.
Technically this was a tricky show to pull off. The actors sat fixed on chairs on the open floor of the performance space and tried restrain their instincts to pace around, command the stage and address their colleagues instead of the audience.
The rehearsal began as a read through but very soon the natural actors’ urge to expostulate resulted in large arm movements and distinct changes in seated body language as they got into their parts. The result was a hybrid – a cross between a read through and a dress rehearsal without period dress, sets and scenery.
I particularly liked the way the actors crooned little interludes, or contributed background atmospheric sound to the scenes, like clopping coconut shells, imitating the wind on board ship and the many calls and cries of the streets of Liverpool.
The biggest limitation was the fact that most of the eight actors took several parts – some as many as five - whilst rooted to the same chair and position on the stage, changing accents, style of address and even their sex while visually being the same person. It would have worked well on radio but with vision it was sometimes hard to spot the transitions from one character to another.
Often the only clue was contextual, the title and date of the scene; the 1700’s was usually ship related and the 1800’s featured Rushton’s grown up family and abolitionists. A back-projected script would have helped or scripts for the audience. Indeed a few people did have these, which were passed around a lot during the performance as we sought confirmation of the dialogue and speakers.
That said it was a very powerful performance. Rushton played in the mature version by Paul Warriner and the youth by Joe Shipman – who confusingly was sometimes somebody else – showed not only the visionary human rights advocate, but the uncertain, unsure family man who loved his wife and children dearly and yearned for his sight.
For me the star of the show was Kwamina played by Chris Jack. His diction was perfect. Every word achieved its maximum impact and even sat down, he dominated the performance with an awesome presence.
I look forward to the live full dress production later in 2015.