Director-of-the-moment Rupert Goold’s work is as notable for the amount of business he creates on stages as off them. Not a week after his Patrick Stewart-led “Macbeth’ grabbed headlines on the West End, Goold’s latest co-production for his company Headlong arrives in London featuring a bumper-sized cast, a hydraulic stage floor, video projections, the live singing of arias and spirituals and an epic story of British involvement in the transatlantic slave trade. However, “Rough Crossings” is crucially missing a strong dramatic through-line, while saddled with a dispiriting overabundance of white guilt.
British Caribbean writer Caryl Phillips adapted the script from Simon Schama’s historical account of the tortuous path of a group of African slaves who fought for the British in the U.S. Revolutionary War but afterward were repeatedly denied the freedom and land ownership promised them.
This story overlaps with — and in the first act is overshadowed by — the formation of an abolitionist movement among a group of idealistic young Brits. The two stories intersect when black leader Thomas Peters (Patrick Robinson) arrives in London to fight for his people’s due, offering abolitionist leader John Clarkson (Ed Hughes) the perfect opportunity to activate his vision of a new beginning for former slaves in Sierra Leone.
That all this action only takes us to the act break is indicative of the excess of information being packed into one evening of theater.
The second act charts the formation and seemingly inevitable failure of the Freetown community in Sierra Leone. The questions the play raises are complex, and the conflict presented between putatively benign white leadership and increasingly extremist black separatism is compelling.
But this is a cinematic costume drama’s worth of material, or, better — a form suggested by the play’s melodramatic tone — a TV miniseries.
The overlapping back-and-forth of action between U.S. battle grounds, U.K. drawing rooms and decks of ships does not allow for significant enough dramatic focus or momentum to develop. To Goold’s credit, we always know exactly where we are, but there is a strong sense here, as with his “Macbeth,” that creating opportunities for directorial activity and flourish is too much an objective in and of itself.
While the technology on display is impressive, many of Goold’s gestures (actors holding pieces of rope or sticks to create different settings; group movement sequences) have a dated, ’80s feel.
The biggest concern, however, is that the storytelling skews toward the experience of the white British characters. Although it takes him too long to emerge as such, the central character here is the angst-ridden Clarkson (presumably why he’s the only character who is given a love story).
From the first moments, we are presented with image after image of powerless, abject blacks, and, while several of those characters are presented as honorable, brave and complex — Robinson’s perf as Peters is particularly strong — the overall impression is that the creators expect auds to be appalled and outraged by the phenomenon of slavery. Well, of course we are, but such outrage can be taken as a given at this point.
The specific history being recounted here of the British relationship to slavery is interesting and not necessarily familiar, but the politics the production communicates seem unsubtle to the point of tokenistic. There’s ample sound and fury here, but what’s being signified does not add up to much that’s new.