Slave Play review – Noël Coward Theatre, London ★★★☆☆

Photo: Helen Murray

‘Is London ready for Slave Play?’ asks the media campaign for the transfer of Jeremy O. Harris’s controversial play from Broadway where it picked up a then-record 12 Tony nominations in 2021. However, it failed to take home any awards – perhaps Broadway wasn’t ready for the play which courted controversy due to its depiction of race, sex and slavery.

The London transfer has taken some of the New York cast with it as Annie McNamara, James Cusati-Moyer, Chalia La Tour and Irene Sofia Lucio reprise their roles. They’re joined by the star power of Kit Harrington and Olivia Washington alongside Fisayo Akinade and Aaron Heffernan.

Intense marketing, controversy in America and star casting – something Harris has railed against – meant the stakes were already high. Then you had the manufactured furore over the production’s two Black Out nights – stagings of the play for “all-black identifying audiences” – that had former Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s spokesperson weighing in to condemn them. That’s a lot of drama before you even get to what happens on stage.

We open with the first of three interracial couples: Kaneisha (Washington) dressed as a slave in antebellum clothing and cleaning with a broom before the apparent setting is broken by the blast of Rhianna’s Work, to which Kaneisha twerks. Jim (Harrington) arrives, not her master but put in charge of her by him, and the obvious role play begins, minus any further 20th-century reference points, until the role play finds its target and the pair engage in sex.

The next two couples follow the same pattern – a role play in which one person in the relationship holds power over the other in a pre-Civil War South role play whereby race is the key driver to the interplay between the characters. The audience faces itself in Clint Ramos’s stage design, the high columns of mirror reflecting the mostly white audience back on itself, making it clear we are voyeurs in these interactions. Or are we part of the act, reflecting our contributions to systematic racism and white supremacy?

Photo: Helen Murray

In the group therapy session that follows the role plays, which form part of “Antebellum Sexual Performance Therapy” to help black partners overcome intimacy issues with white partners, the space that is meant for black characters is instead taken over by the feelings and views of the white characters. Similar, perhaps, in the way many white critics will voice their opinion on Slave Play in the absence of black voices. Mea culpa, I am one of them.

Both the returning cast and the new cast excel under Robert O’Hara’s direction, with Harrington and Washington justifying their star casting, but it is Akinade and Cusati-Moyer who make the most of their more interesting characters with Gary (Akinade) having lost his own self of worth and Dustin (Cusati-Moyer) who is struggling to define his own race identity. That is at least until the final act when Washington bares Kaneisha’s soul and Harrington’s Jim attempts to match her.

Despite the hype, Slave Play is not shocking. Still, it is a challenging and frequently uncomfortable watch – even if punctuated with regular laughs to relieve the tension before it builds again. There is something inherently unsettling about a mostly white audience watching white characters frequently using the N-word, even in a role play within a play that has been written by a black writer.

That is perhaps more a reflection of the experience than the content which bounces between its examination of the race, the satire of new pseudoscience therapy movements (hilarious psychobabble abounds), physical comedy bordering on farce, and relationship drama. But the results are uneven as Harris and O’Hara struggle to balance its tonal shifts. Meanwhile, we find ourselves retreading some of the same ground repeatedly so that its two-hour interval-free running time feels longer.

But the most contention comes from Harris’s approach to the play’s themes, which garnered most controversy in America. Avoiding specifics so as not to give too much away, Harris’s approach to racial dynamics is the theatrical equivalent of using a sledgehammer to crack a nut – an attempt to shock us to attention that doesn’t quite work. Though there is little subtlety in the approach, the shell is certainly cracked even if the contents are annihilated, to take the analogy too far. That said, Harris does make you think, and you will likely be pondering Slave Play days and weeks later.

So was London ready for Slave Play? Yes – but Slave Play might not have been quite ready for London. That said… ask me again next week.

Slave Play is at the Noël Coward Theatre until 21 September 2024