Tag Archives: Paterson Joseph

Life at a sitting

SANCHO – An Act of Remembrance

The REP, Birmingham, Wednesday 23rd September, 2015


In this one-man show, writer, actor and co-director Paterson Joseph takes a step to redressing the balance: so much of our history omits or overlooks black people. We get an annual nod in the form of Black History Month but, Joseph says, it should just be History. He is keen to disabuse any notion that there were no black people in Britain prior to the 1940s and asks to consider a black Roman, of African origin, stationed at Hadrian’s Wall. He reads us a complaint of Elizabeth I, saying there were too many of ‘those people’ in her beloved England…

Joseph bounds on and addresses us directly, as a heightened version of himself, witty, charming, working the crowd, and easing us into the dramatization. He becomes Charles Ignatius Sancho, a remarkable figure in many respects, but also a unifying figure as he goes through many of the troubles that ordinary (white) folk may encounter. Joseph’s Sancho is an erudite, lisping figure, self-assured and no less charming than the actor portraying him. We first meet him as he sits for Thomas Gainsborough – the resulting portrait was a catalyst for much of tonight’s material. Sancho narrates and re-enacts key events in his life, from his mother’s death in giving birth to him, his father’s subsequent suicide, and his arrival in London at the age of three to act as a servant (read: pet) for three spinsters. A Duke takes him under his wing, educating the boy behind the spinsters’ backs, and the young Sancho (so named because of his portrayal of Don Quixote’s manservant in some am-dram for the spinsters’ amusement) becomes an actor, poet, and what-have-you. He opens a grocery shop and becomes well-known for writing letters to newspapers. He experiences love and loss, as we all do. Eventually, he becomes the first black man to vote – the play ends at this moment of personal and social triumph.

Often informative but never didactic, the play is highly amusing and performed with élan. Joseph’s skills as a storyteller and performer bring both him and Sancho to our hearts. You can’t help liking him/them immensely. There are cheeky asides to individuals in the audiences, a girl is importuned to join him on stage for a courtly dance – it’s all entertaining, to be sure, but it also brings the material directly to us. This is the story of someone in our past, not just someone we might glimpse at in Black History Month.

Michael Vale’s set of wooden planks evokes both the stage of Sancho’s dramatic endeavours but also the hold of the slave ship. Linda Haysman costumes Joseph in the outfit Sancho sports in the Gainsborough portrait, and he uses his neck stock and other pieces to present other characters in the story. Ben Park’s music and sound design enhances the action, while evoking the 18th century. Lighting changes by Lucrecia Briceno indicate changes in location and, subtly, mood.

Co-directed by Simon Godwin and Joseph himself, Sancho – an Act of Remembrance is an engaging, humorous and sometimes poignant piece. Charles Ignatius Sancho is both a remarkable figure and an ordinary man – a point that is just as important as his place in British history.

1696_Paterson Joseph in Sancho_credit Robert Day

Paterson Joseph (Photo: Robert Day)

Conspiracy Practice

RST, Stratford upon Avon, Tuesday 19th June, 2012

Transported from Ancient Rome to present-day Africa, Shakespeare’s political thriller gains in the more obvious political relevance and loses some of the thrills. Gregory Doran’s production gets off to a lively start with the huge cast celebrating onstage as the audience comes in. The mood is broken by the arrival of soldiers to subdue and police the crowd. Julius Caesar is awarded unprecedented powers by the senate but not everyone is in favour. A group of conspirators plot and carry out his assassination only to find the tide of public opinion turns against them. They are hunted down. The main players commit suicide to avoid capture.

That’s the plot in a nutshell. What the play is about in my view is the persuasive power of language. People are always talking others into or out of doing things. Shakespeare’s masterstroke is the famous speech by Mark Antony, whose rhetoric is irresistible. Unfortunately, I found Ray Fearon’s muscular Antony a little too mannered in this speech, leaning on the accent rather than the words. He may as well have been singing to the mob. A shame this, in an otherwise impressive characterisation – he built the “Cry havoc and let slip the dogs of war” speech to a perfect crescendo.

Jeffrey Kissoon as Caesar is a charismatic, avuncular dictator, comfortable with his status. The audience knows that those he holds nearest are up to no good and the tension of expectation leading up to the assassination is nicely built. From then on, the production becomes patchier. There are some moments and strong touches (I liked the Soothsayer as a shaman/witchdoctor figure, looming over pivotal scenes) but the action becomes muddied. The corpse of Caesar is like a bag of washing that has been run over – Wisely, the mob conceals it from view.

Paterson Joseph’s Brutus is a complex character – a mix of strong-jawed political conviction and wet-eyed sentiment. His relationship with young servant Lucius (Simon Manyonda) brings humour and warmth – the image of boys with firearms is all too familiar from media coverage, although I suspect their allegiance to the local warlord is born of something other than filial affection. Manyonda stole the show, proving you don’t need the showcase speeches and the spotlight to create an affecting, rounded and beautiful performance.

The set is mainly stone steps, worn and chipped, dominated by a humongous statue with a fascistic salute. Of course, the statue is toppled – it’s Revolutionary Symbolism 101, but I felt disengaged long before this point. I didn’t care that the conspirators had failed. I didn’t care that they had been caught. The pertinence of the play – the transitory nature of power – shed no new light on current situations. I suppose I wanted to be startled into realising something. I wasn’t.

And two-and-a-half hours without an interval is too long a time to sit in those RST pews.