Luminosity, Nick Stafford's new play for the RSC, glitters with intricate patterns of light and colour much like one of the diamonds from whose properties it takes its title. Unfortunately, Stafford's script is often precious in a rather different sense. It makes for a frustrating hour and three-quarters, as narrative themes and moral issues are complexly interwoven over three separate dramatic timelines, with barely an ounce of spare flesh on the play's frame, but we find characters reduced to mouthpieces either for perspectives or for too well-turned phrases.
Stafford examines matters of family identity, race and how each of the aforementioned interacts with motives of philanthropy and profit. In 1999, Debra, the black adopted daughter of the Mercer family (oldish money, good works) returns to the family home in the West Midlands to instigate a debate about their family history; a century earlier, in the besieged South African town of Kimberley, a Mercer forebear in town to cut an enormous diamond finds his beloved is more than she appears; a century earlier still, we see how the Mercer family and fortune themselves are founded on slavery, fraud and even murder. Is it hypocrisy to earn from suffering (in this particular case, the suffering of black people) the money which one then puts to moral ends, or is it a necessary condition of commerce and history? To what extent are we responsible for our individual or collective forebears' wrongs, and to what extent is it meaningful to talk of reparation? Such questions constantly refract through the evening.
Kandis Cook's design consists largely of a bed of glittering gravel which is reshaped for successive scenes: a nice emblem, but a practical drag on the flow of staging of Gemma Bodinetz's production, as to an extent is the scenic structure of Stafford's script in the first place. Karen Bryson as artist Debra, Tom Smith as her adoptive great-grandfather James, John McEnery as family founder William and Jude Akuwudike as freed slave Saul Mercer turn in fine performances, but only in Saul's case does the overwriting appear to have a point. The rest of the time characters find themselves either given too bald lines such as "I am a gem containing beautiful colours" or – even at the height of Debra's emotional maelstrom, as she tries to articulate the entanglement of feelings and questions raised – an excessive, implausible rhetorical eloquence. This may be one more aspect of Stafford's "luminosity", matching his narrative complexity and polish with similar linguistic qualities, but it distracts from rather than complementing the thoughtfulness of the piece.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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