Review: Human trafficking drama Silent Trade is tough but brilliant theatre worth making a noise about
Silent Trade, Rosemary Jenkinson’s new play which tackles the awfulness of human trafficking, is topical. Horribly so. Yet it made the Naughton Studio audience at the Lyric Theatre think about colonialism and its modern version in a profound and touching way.
Kabosh’s brilliant production has been based on interviews with victims and you can almost smell the authenticity. We meet Precious, a Nigerian woman majorly in debt after having gained illegal entry to the UK.
Lizzy Akinbami, who has a background in film and whose first theatre role this is, was stellar. She had to be submissive as bullying housewife Erin (Louise Parker, also superb) then obligingly sexy as a prostitute when the family sell her on.
This reminded me of Thomas Hardy’s novel The Mayor of Casterbridge, where a man is sold as a labourer to the highest bidder because he loses his money; for slavery is always about economics.
Oddly, all the characters are fairly sympathetic, even relatable, even if they do inexcusable things. James Doran as Rab the brothel keeper is a kind of not-nice Del Boy who keeps his girls on drugs and has ambitions to build an empire.
Erin has an African husband and is concerned her daughter may end up a victim of female circumcision. Maybe she’s less easy to understand as she treats Precious as somebody virtually subhuman. But Jenkinson’s ability to create these people we almost recognise avoids a black and white analysis.
It has to be said, I thought of England, where I come from, and the hideous history of enslavement. In a way, Silent Trade is that sad history of colonialism compressed into an hour and made contemporary.
The ownership of Precious is at times quite hard to witness. She says, rightly, she has no choice but to submit to the indignities as she’s doled out her ration of condoms by Rab. The humour, and there is some, is bleak. The relationship between the two sex workers, Suze and Precious, is well drawn, their plans for a different future touching.
In this layered drama, there are many betrayals. Without spoiling the ending, there is also survival. One of the best scenes involves John, played by Seamus O'Hara (of the Bafta-winning and Oscar-nominated Northern Ireland short film An Irish Goodbye). He is an early client of Precious, who is now sexy in wig and revealing clothes. As Rab says, his customers like their women slim and young or big and curvy.
It is genuinely shocking that all this could be still happening today, in the 21st century. Frankly, as somebody who spent time with a father scientist in Uganda during Africanisation, it made me really think.
Yet the skill with which Jenkinson avoided being preachy was amazing. Kabosh are clearly on a roll with recent productions Not On Our Watch and This Sh*t Happens All the Time.
Rosemary Jenkinson is a great short story writer and her sense of narrative informs the play which is directed by Paula McFetridge. My only criticism might be a bit of longueur towards the end in the scene where John is revealed to be Niall, a cop investigating illegal trafficking.
He admits at one point his interest is “more than personal”, which we know from his tender caressing of Precious’s arms earlier.
It ends not with a bang but a whimper from Suze, now begging on the Belfast streets. In the background is her minder, Rab.
Suella Braverman should be sent a tape at the Home Office and it should play in London, maybe at the Young Vic or The Bush Theatre which won best theatre of the year alongside the Lyric.
And everybody should experience a superb night of theatre as it moves on tour to other venues in the coming days. It's not an easy night, but there is still the energy of good theatre.
As Hardy noted: “Happiness was but an occasional episode in the general drama of pain."
Silent Trade runs at the Lyric’s Naughton Studio until Sunday February 26 and can then be seen at: The Old Courthouse, Antrim (February 28); The Market Place Theatre, Armagh (March 2); Dundalk Institute of Technology (March 3); and Ranfurly House, Dungannon (March 4)