sun 23/02/2020

Sancho: An Act of Remembrance, Wilton's Music Hall review - pure entertainment | reviews, news & interviews

Sancho: An Act of Remembrance, Wilton's Music Hall review - pure entertainment

Sancho: An Act of Remembrance, Wilton's Music Hall review - pure entertainment

Larger-than-life history of Charles Ignatius Sancho distilled into virtuoso one-man show

Paterson Joseph as Charles Ignatius SanchoPhoto © Robert Day

One space, one person, one story, one voice  the monologue is theatre distilled, the purest form of entertainment. On a stage of packing boxes and boards, over the course of just over an hour, Paterson Joseph relays and plays the life of Charles Ignatius Sancho, the first British man of African origin to vote.

As befits any good piece of bombast set in the 18th century, The Author opens Act One. In actual fact, the author is Paterson Joseph himself, who, having written himself, performs himself – a fictionalised, larger-than-life, theatrical simulacrum. He explains, “Politics wasn’t the reason I first wrote this play,” (the audience is already hooked), “You can relax…” (the audience relaxes). “It was vanity,” (ripple of laughter) “and frustration,” (wait for the follow-up). “I wrote this play…” (bated breath, bated breath), “because I wanted to be in a costume drama,” (what mirth! who in their right mind would want to be in a costume drama?! think the audience, collectively). Well, Joseph explains, “loads of my contemporaries were in them. The white contemporaries that I trained with and did my first jobs with. They got to act in costume dramas all the time.”

It’s a virtuoso performance and a masterly feat of oratory. The audience are putty

It's the simple and obvious parallel between basic rights then (the right to vote) and basic rights now (the right to take to the boards in a cravat)  the right to be absurd being as unquestionably fundamental as that of being serious. It’s not politics that Joseph is giving us, but entertainment  though it’s thoroughly political. With this elision between Joseph and Sancho, The Author has set the stage for the two-step of sincerity and mimicry, fact and fiction conjoined in the theatrically-inclined Sancho’s larger-than-life life story (who, as a side-note, is so named for having been allotted Sancho Panza in household plays, and  panza meaning "paunch" in Spanish  in point of fact had a bit of a belly).

Sancho’s life is rendered as a mêlée of slapstick, high culture and deep tragedy. We hear Tristram Shandy’s lament that his parents should have “minded what they were about when they begot me” and are plunged into Sancho’s world where the absurd, the scurrilous and the deeply tragic are packed tight. Sterne’s book, which he flourishes boldly yet treats like treasure, is a talisman of his place in the contemporary literary and artistic set (he corresponded with Sterne, hobnobbed with Garrick, and was painted by Gainsborough  the portrait on display for much of the play), a symbol of his hard-won and dearly-cherished education provided by chance by a Duke against the wishes of his then mistresses (“the Weird Sisters  I use the term with Shakespearean accuracy”) who forbad him even from learning to read, and a sign of his fashionable literary taste. It is also the opportunity for Sancho to transform Shandy’s pyrrhic attempt at autobiography (which just gets beyond birth to toddlerhood) via wombish innuendo into a reference to the hellish Middle Passage along which slaves were shipped across the Atlantic and a pieced-together account of his own birth on board a slave ship to a mother who died in labour and a father who took his own life shortly after.

Paterson Joseph as Charles Ignatius Sancho © Robert DayThe play defies genre just as far as Sancho’s life defies expectation. Joseph sweats out decades of Sancho’s life across the boards. As a child, his dear feet kick with glee and greed at the thought of “Cook’s syllabub”, and at opening a book for the first time and seeing “words…. words!” enchantment radiates from every pore. As a cocksure young stud he squanders and gambles away his annuity, and, ending up in his underwear in the shadow of St Paul’s, when he puns his bare-arse nakedness with buffoonish aplomb on the “crack” of dawn, we see a clear flash of cheek though his costumed breeches. He struts a dance and bags an indomitable wife who bears him children, as well as his foolery. As a frail older man struck with gout and age and running his own greengrocer's, his eyes dull as he leans on his stick in the grip of vile intestinal pain, before flaming with ire at the bitter and scoffable trash printed in raggy newspapers (“I call for the castration of black men when they commit the villainous act of subverting our species”) that he punctures with righteous letters to the editor. Joseph holds our unqualified attention for the entire length of the show, manipulating not just his character on stage but the amassed emotions of the entire auditorium. It’s a virtuoso performance and a masterly feat of oratory. The audience are putty.

But, of course, no artfully performed monologue has just one person on stage. There’s an entire world to convey, a whole milieu to fill with characters and voices and faces. Joseph isn’t just giving us Sancho, he’s creating, in this mainly bare hall, an entire, peopled world. He’s channelling the pure force of raw theatre, tapping the imagination of each audience member to fabricate worlds and offer up dreams. It’s what the arts can achieve  dissolve boundaries, break down barriers. Anything is possible just so long as we entertain it, thoughfully.

It's the very political punch of this very British play. Sancho’s ability to cast his ballot hinged on the fact that he owned property. Certainly he was an outlier, but suffrage was far from universal. Barriers existed and continue to exist in quieter, less obvious ways. Sancho’s life was transformed the night he opened the book and saw “knowledge”, and one of the most egregious crimes inflicted on him was the conscious sequestration of education  a necessary nourishment which neither can nor should be the preserve of the few.

In a play where one person portrays many, against the current backdrop of blistering austerity, closing libraries and gently rising inequality (look at how the UK’s Gini coefficient tips slowly upwards just after its precipitous plunge at the time of the financial crash), Joseph’s impassioned plea is that the arts are accorded the value they deserve and that education is neither hidden away nor scrimped.

(Oh – and the sound design, staging, lighting and costumes are hands-down great, too.)


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