**** (4 stars)
“A deeply disturbing play”
What is it about the Wedderburn family? The National Theatre of Scotland’s Enough of Him, which deals with the relationship between Sir John Wedderburn of Ballindean and his enslaved Black servant Joseph Knight played out in the Brunton theatre, about a mile and a half from Wedderburn House in Inveresk. This was the home of James Wedderburn, purchased with some of the fortune he made from his slave-run plantation in Jamaica. Here James was visited by his son, Robert, whose mother was one of many slaves on the plantation by whom James had children. Robert was born free, and made the trip to Inveresk, expecting to be welcomed by his father: instead, he was rudely turned away with nothing. Robert Wedderburn went on to become a leading figure in the anti-slavery movement,
You might think Joseph Knight fared rather better at the hands of John Wedderburn when he returned to Scotland, rich enough to restore his family’s estate and marry the well-connected Margaret. Having purchased the young Joseph in Jamaica, John brought the young man with him when he returned to Scotland, where Joseph fell in love with, and married, Annie Thompson, one of the household servants. John Wedderburn refused to let them live together as a family: Joseph Knight left his service and Wedderburn took him to court, claiming that Joseph owed him perpetual service. The case Knight v. Wedderburn was initially brought before the local justices of the peace, who found in Wedderburn’s favour. Joseph appealed against the decision and the case eventually came before the Court of Session, who overturned that decision, saying
the dominion assumed over this Negro, under the law of Jamaica, being unjust, could not be supported in this country to any extent: That, therefore, the defender had no right to the Negro‘s service for any space of time, nor to send him out of the country against his consent: That the Negro was likewise protected under the act 1701 from being sent out of the country against his consent.
This judgement meant that slavery was not recognised under Scots law.
Enough of Him is a deeply unsettling play which doesn’t spell out Joseph Knight’s story but uses it to explore the whole concept of property and ownership, not only that of slave and master, but of servant and master or mistress and even of husband and wife.
The relationship between Joseph and Sir John is extremely ambivalent – there are strong homoerotic undertones, and a disturbing ambiguity. At times Sir John treats him like a beloved friend, insisting that he sits to eat with himself and his wife; he discusses philosophy with him; he favours him greatly – but he can at any time turn into a raging tyrannical bully, exulting in the power he exerts. He extends this treatment to everyone in his household, including his wife Margaret, who is deeply unhappy and extremely jealous of her husband’s intimate relationship with the man she initially sees only as a thing, a slave. She in turn is equally ambivalent towards her servant, Annie, favouring her, treating her kindly, and then turning on her when she speaks out bluntly, pointing out that this ‘kindness’ is dependent on Annie expressing her gratitude towards her mistress.
In flashbacks we get glimpses into the horrific treatment of men and women trafficked in the Atlantic slave trade and sold into slavery in the West Indian plantations: they are seen as inferior beings, as things, less than human, property to be used and abused at will. It’s clear that Sir John regards everyone in his Scottish household as his property, never seeing them as human beings with any rights, expecting them to be grateful to him, and believing that he can maltreat them in any way he chooses without any qualm of conscience. What is so appalling is the realisation that many people today, consciously or unconsciously, think they still have those rights of property over everyone whom they regard in any way as their inferior.
Enough of Him is a deeply disturbing play in which the intense tension hardly lets up. Written by May Sumbwanyamba and acted to perfection by Omar Austin [Joseph Knight], Catriona Faint [Annie Thompson], Rachel-Rose McLaren [Margaret Wedderburn] and Matthew Pidgeon [Sir John Wedderburn], it is played out in the small oppressive square in front of an enormous oil painting of a serene landscape depicting glorious rural tranquility, with trees and mountains surrounding a placid loch and a stately home perched on a hill above – a stark contrast to the tropical, violent, blood-soaked country which made possible the wealth that funded the estate’s purchase.
It’s not all gloom and doom – there is humour in the developing relationship between Joseph and Annie as well as the latter’s unspoken but transparent reactions to much she is asked to do. There is music – John Pfumojena’s wonderful mixture of Caribbean rhythms and sounds and a Burns song invites dancing, by which the totally closed-in Joseph is encouraged to allow his feelings out of the prison in which he had incarcerated them, that being the only way he could survive the horrors he witnessed and experienced.
Enough of Him uncovers the arrogance and hypocrisy of Scottish wealthy families, who made their fortunes at the expense of enslaved people. The Wedderburn brothers lost everything when the family estate was sequestered after James and John’s father was hung, drawn and quartered for his part in the 1745 Jacobite rebellion. Forced to find a living, they both went to Jamaica and prospered mightily from the labour of enslaved Africans. On their return to Scotland they were welcomed into polite society which conveniently ignored the blood-stained source of their wealth. The result of Knight v. Wedderburn made no difference to their respectable position – it’s only very recently that people have begun to ask questions and realise the burden of guilt hidden behind the respectable facades of properties like Ballindean House and Wedderburn House.
It’s not a comfortable play, but it’s one which needs to be seen. It not only sheds light on Scotland’s less than squeaky-clean past, but also encourages us all to consider what we unthinkingly take for granted as “my property, with which I can do exactly as I please”…
National Theatre of Scotland presents Enough of Him, The Brunton Theatre, Musselburgh, Run Ended, The production completes its Scottish tour at the Perth Theatre running from 16th to the 19th November, for more information go to: https://www.nationaltheatrescotland.com/events/enough-of-him