If conscience is to be your guide, is it actually possible to live in the world? If you put every action, every dependency, to intense moral questioning, how can you act at all? In today’s secular world that’s a question with which many individuals wrestle, and it is one that Quakers, and religious groups that, like them, put the focus on a guiding inner light, have been grappling with for centuries.
These are the questions facing the two central characters in Elizabeth Kuti’s The Sugar Wife, which has just transferred to the Soho Theatre in London from Dublin, the setting of the play. But this is the 1840s city, in a nation already on the edge of economic and social collapse.
Hannah Tewkley (Jane Brennan), an intense, mid-30s, childless Quaker wife almost consumed by a career in “good works”, has an uneasy relationship with her own body, but an even more uncomfortable relationship with her husband Samuel (Barry Barnes). He is a tea, coffee and sugar merchant who plans to branch out into oriental tea-houses. He squares his own rather flexible conscience in using American – slave-grown – sugar, amidst other moral “crimes”, by funding his wife’s philanthropy and pointing to the likely fate of his employees were he to go out of business.
Into this volatile, uncomfortable house are invited – at the insistence of Hannah – two visiting anti-slavery campaigners, the former slave Sarah Worth (Susan Salmon) and the man who bought her out of slavery, the rich-boy turned rebel Alfred Darby (Robert Price). The latter has apparently solved the problem of conscience by living entirely by his principles – to the point, it emerges, of living on Sarah’s earnings so he can devote himself to his “work” and to “art” (producing daguerreotypes).
The two female characters are far better realised than their male counterparts; the women’s actions are passionate, sometimes illogical, but always comprehensible. The men in Kuti’s script, however, are less transparent, even confusing. Why is it that Samuel confides some of his deepest secrets to the obviously untrustworthy Alfred?
The performances of Brennan and Salmon are the highlights of this production, but they have far more opportunity to shine. Salmon’s abolitionist speeches – delivered direct to the Soho Theatre audience – have tremendous power, while Brennan’s anguish when challenged by Alfred about the uneasy compromises that she has made in her life is gripping.
The interaction of the characters is curious. Kuti has elected, and the director Lynne Parker has chosen to highlight, the way the characters rarely genuinely interact, but instead speak to themselves, or an imaginary moral jury, about their choices in life. It is only in one great confrontation in the play, between Hannah and Sarah, that the actors and the characters really touch each other’s core.
I couldn’t help thinking this would have worked best on a bare, simple stage, yet here are lots of fussy little realistic touches that distract rather than enhance. The constant appearance and disappearance of cutlery and fine crockery is probably meant to be a contrast to Hannah’s search for simple purity, but I got rather fed up with actors slowly collecting tea cups between scenes.
No offence to the harpist (Jean Kelly), but I also found her well-lit continual on-stage presence distracting, and the occasional intrusion of music at dramatic moments less than a complement. This is a very word-focused play, and the spotlight would be better left on the words.
Kuti is indeed a fine writer, and this is a text that repays re-reading. The sugar metaphor – the sweetness that is of often sour, not just to the slaves forced to produce it but to everyone who thereafter touches it – is particularly powerful.
So my recommendation is see the production and read the text (which is printed in the programme); just try to ignore those tea-cups.