Writer: Barry Reckord
Directory: Joseph Charles
If the notion of white men being a bunch of power-hungry hypocrites comes as a surprise, then where have you been for the last few millennia. And yet having this pointed out is still necessary.
Barry Reckord’s 1975 play White Witch of Rose Hall, presented here with a shortened title by Thee Black Swan in a revival of their 2017 production, takes as its basis the legend of a ghost that haunts the Rose Hall slave plantation in Jamaica. Rumour has it that Annie Palmer, wife of the plantation owner John Plamer, killed her husband and went on to murder two later husbands and a number of slaves, before being killed by a slave herself.
The legend is pure bunkum – Annie Palmer never existed – but it forms a solid basis for Reckord’s examination of race relations and misogyny that would have felt searingly familiar in 1970s Britain, and continues to feel dismayingly contemporary some five decades later.
In Reckord’s tale, slave owner Simon Palmer (Robert Maskell) has returned to the plantation with a new wife, Georgina Baillie’s Annie. But Annie is accompanied by rumours of promiscuity and witchcraft. Tales abound of her taking black lovers and, after one of them was killed by her brothers, that she used witchcraft to take her revenge on his murderers.
The real origins of the demonisation of Annie are starkly illustrated, though – the woman’s crimes are to treat sex as an enjoyable pastime, and to illustrate her intelligence by speaking her mind on the prospects of the abolitionist movement which had yet to reach Rose Hall. Her enthusiastic acquisition of lovers is admonished within breaths of her husband enthusiastically regaling tales of having his way with young women in his ownership. That a woman’s consensual activities are demonised while a man’s acts of sexual assault are laughed about approvingly is a dichotomy that feels all too raw and relevant.
Maskell’s Palmer is a suitably oily, self-involved character, most genial when in the company of his manservant Dawes (Okon Jones), and harsher to almost everyone. Of the plantation slaves, Judith Jacob and Natasha Springer make the strongest impressions, wary occasional allies of their new mistress.
And it is Annie upon who Reckord places the brunt of the play’s work. Much of the opening of the second act is given over to allowing her to monologue on the play’s themes, even as the character is doubled up in pain, having taken medication to induce a miscarriage.
Which is why this production is frustrating in its failure to elicit a meaningful characterisation from Baillie’s Annie. Those meaty slabs of script are delivered in a monotone, hiding some of Reckord’s delicious observational nuggets from being truly appreciated and robbing the play of much of its powerful potential.
Elsewhere, several of the minor characters struggle to project into the Bloomsbury’s auditorium. Combined with a bland set design by Francis Johnson, it becomes all the harder to get involved in the socioeconomic and sexual politics at play in Rose Hall.
Consequently, while Reckord’s play has much to say about the treatment of women and ethnic minorities throughout history and the consequent disparities that persist through to our time, this revival of White Witch struggles to be heard.
Continues until 18 September 2021