The Return of Benjamin Lay

Reviewer's rating

This a remarkable piece of storytelling from the team at the Finborough. Wallace and Rediker have an important story to tell and, in Povinelli, they have found the ideal performer to tell it. The Finborough is a tiny theatre with a big reputation. For this production, the audience of 50 sits in rows of banked seats and the actor has a performing space in front of three large windows that look out onto a busy London Street. Yet in this theatre, we are quickly immersed in the story of Benjamin Lay, a Quaker and “a dwarf and hunchback” who lived an extraordinary life at the beginning of the eighteenth century. And, even more amazing, we the audience are asked to put ourselves in the shoes of a Quaker community of 1730 and consider whether we would be willing to re-admit this troublesome radical to our assembly. In just seventy minutes, we get a sense of what his demons and angels were telling him – and why he would have been a difficult man to have in the Society of Friends. There were many issues that moved him  – a hatred of slavery was only one of them – and he would not be silenced even when his opinions were unwelcome to his compatriots.

Mark Povinelli is a person of small physical stature – he is a fine actor and, incidentally, the president of Little People of America, an organisation that campaigns for the rights of people with forms of dwarfism. He prowls the stage, his persona switching between sweet reasonableness, barely suppressed outrage and dark humour. He has three chairs, a low table, and a ladder as his props but with these scant resources he takes us to Colchester, the high seas, the Bahamas and Philadelphia – and we learn about the ways in which he tried to challenge the ills of his society. He learnt first hand about the evils of slavery in the Bahamas but discovered that, even in the Quaker communities of Pennsylvania, the ill treatment of black African captives flourished.

Given the simple resources available, Povinelli’s vigour and grace are brilliantly exploited by distinguished director Ron Daniels – his track record in the UK and the USA is formidable – and the telling of the story never flags. Changes of pace and subtle lighting shifts are well managed and Povinelli recruits members of the audience to help him at key moments.

It is a fascinating story, well told. The themes  – of prejudice against people with handicaps, of the legacy of slavery, of the mindless exploitation of the natural world, of the impact of greed on the ideals of decent people – are entirely contemporary. It’s a play that deserves an enormous audience, though it is difficult to see how it could work as well in a space that puts greater distance between performer and audience.  It is great theatre as much because of the way it challenges the audience to ask questions of itself as because it is a fascinating story. So good luck to The Finborough in filling the 50 seats every night of this important run.