(Gareth Llŷr Evans’s review appeared in the UK Guardian, 4/8; Photograph: Curtis Richard Photography.)

Bristol Old Vic
Giles Terera’s lyrical and inventive drama about a brutal episode in British history brims with urgency, pain and ultimately pride

In November and December 1781, 132 enslaved Africans held captive on the British ship Zong were thrown overboard into the Caribbean sea and murdered. This brutal event and the subsequent London court cases which energised the abolitionist movement are chronicled in The Meaning of Zong, Giles Terera’s debut play. 

‘It was shameful I didn’t know about it’: Hamilton’s Giles Terera on the Zong massacre

Originally due to be staged in 2020 and adapted for radio last year, it now receives a richly theatrical first production. Framed by a contemporary setting, the play is resolutely aware of its place in the present moment and how its resonances may differ after the events of the intervening two years. It refrains from didacticism and easy metaphors.

Although the playwright not only shares directing duties with Tom Morris but also stars as abolitionist Olaudah Equiano, it is very much an ensemble piece. Roles and scenery swiftly segue from one scene to the next: talking bookshelves become a crackling fireplace and revolutionary printing presses; slaves become judges.

Performed to music composed and spectacularly played live by Sidiki Dembele, Terera’s nimble script moves to its own rhythm. An extended and exquisitely lyrical second-act monologue might, in a less assured production, feel like it belongs to a different play. Here it feels wholly apposite, performed to devastating effect by Kiera Lester.

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