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  • Helen Compton

The Return of Benjamin Lay

Finborough Theatre

Playing until 8th July 2023

Writer: Naomi Wallace

Director: Ron Daniels

Set Designers: Riccardo Hernandez, Isobel Nicolson

Review {Gifted - PR invite)

The return of Benjamin Lay is based on a real-life historical person, Benjamin Lay, who was an Anglo-American quaker humanitarian and abolitionist.

Benjamin Lay (Mark Povinelli) was clearly an unconventional man. Living in the 1700s, he stood out in any crowd not only because of his small stature, but also because he was ahead of his time in his abolitionist views and was “uncommonly” outspoken about them. After being “disowned” by the Quaker community the play revolves around his impassioned discourse at a Quaker meeting to become accepted again. Benjamin recounts his life course, inviting you “to see” how his abolitionist view came about but it also prompts internal reflection on the hypocrisy all of us bear as we live our lives in the current day. In this production, Povinelli breaks the fourth wall, speaking directly to the audience in the present day and urges us to challenge the decisions we make in our lives.

Slavery is an active discourse in the present day and it is easy to imagine how Benjamin Lay’s outspokenness could provoke a quiet terror in “civilised society” in the 1700s and why people did not want to listen. Several memorable characters are “presented” to the audience such as Benjamin Franklin, who was a quiet abolitionist supporter.

Povinelli’s portrayal as Benjamin Lay is impassioned, and he is perfectly able to carry the performance on his own. Given the historical setting, the slightly “flowery language” of the performance takes some getting used to and it may convey less well for people that are less familar with the older style of the language or fully fluent in English.

The play is set in a Quaker House and the theatre interior lends itself beautifully to a Quaker house setting, giving the play a very intimate feel as Benjamin speaks directly to you, as if talking directly to the Quaker audience, and inviting a response several times during the performance.

The Return of Benjamin Lay is an intimate performance that invites you to see the underbelly of our society, and consider how the decisions we make can have wider reaching implications for others in our society and our planet in the same way that slavery did in the past as we “drink our tea with sugar”.

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