Review: SLAVE PLAY, Noël Coward Theatre

Jeremy O. Harris's controversy magnet play lands in London

By: Jul. 10, 2024
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Review: SLAVE PLAY, Noël Coward Theatre
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Slave Play“Is London ready for Slave Play?” portentously proclaims the marketing tagline. There’s a cantaloupe on the poster with a hole that looks like a vagina. Outrageous! Call the Lord Chamberlain! A rule of thumb from the theatre critics’ playbook: any show that desperately wants you to know how radical it is usually isn’t radical at all.

Slave Play’s overreliance on outrage to propel itself sows the seeds for its own downfall: What it considers outrageous, here in London in 2024, doesn’t feel all that shocking. Jeremy O. Harris’s 2018 play takes a brave wade into the swampy politics of race and sex. Three interracial couples partake in experimental “antebellum sexual therapy” where they cosplay as slaves and slave drivers. Fifty Shades of Frantz Fanon (the anti-colonial philosopher - no doubt an influence here).

White, middle aged Alana tears off her Gone With the Wind dress to reveal thigh-high dominatrix boots and proceeds to unsheathe a nine inch black dildo which she inserts up her mixed race toy boy's rectum. In America, where race and racism is at the forefront of the national social consciousness, this kind of thing probably doesn’t just touch a nerve, but grabs a cluster of them. But this is not America.

You can feel the cogs turn in Robert O’Hara’s Broadway imported production to manufacture the moments it wants you to be outraged by. With a collective scowl and upper lips stiffened, the British audience just don’t seem as shakeable. 

Never mind the sex and nudity (the literal bollocks) - at its core Slave Play is too obsessed with conceptual naval gazing to the extent that it forgets that its characters are human beings. The vast majority of it is stuffed by a overwrought therapy session where the couples whine and whinge about their sex problems – suggested, by harpy-like therapists spouting meaningless therapy jingo, to stem from racial trauma that they must now exorcise.

Central couple Kit Harrington’s Jim and Olivia Washington’s Kaneisha are painfully incompatible. His white masculine bravado translates to a slave driver in the bedroom BDSM fantasy: He struts, whip in hand, ludicrously overplayed southern drawl, while she subserviently twerks to Rihanna. 

Slave Play

Are their underwhelmingly tepid performances to blame for their numbing lack of chemistry? Or is it the two-dimensional script that can’t decide if it wants to poke fun at solipsistic therapy culture, or seriously interrogate the intersection of race, racism, and sex? Don’t get me wrong. It's not that its ideas are uninteresting. It’s that it’s a structureless whirlwind of serious and silly. A cross between a Verso Books essay on race theory and a Carry-on film: Carry On Dismantle White Supremacy

Credit where it’s due. The self-conscious brand of weirdness is admirably sui generis. But for a play that wears controversy as a badge of honour the last thing I expected to feel was slightly bored. Not going full Salo would be tolerable if there were genuine emotional heart underneath the #politics. 

Slave Play plays at the Noel Coward Theatre until 21 September

Photo Credit: Helen Murray


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