The Return Of Benjamin Lay – Theatre Review

THE Return Of Benjamin Lay is a powerful play that looks at the issue of slavery through the eyes of one of the British Empire’s first abolitionists.

The feisty Lay, who died in 1759 aged 77, was a pioneering individual on so many fronts. He travelled the world as a sailor, married a girl whom he met in Deptford and then lived in both Barbados and Philadelphia.

He was a vegetarian, a shepherd, a Quaker and a feminist. But it was his hostility to slavery, the horrors of which he witnessed with his own eyes in both the Caribbean and North America,  that ultimately framed him. He railed against slavery long before William Wilberforce led the charge to abolish it.

Lay was also a dwarf – a self-proclaimed Little David taking on the Goliath of slavery – and had a hunched back. He wasn’t fazed as a result: indeed, he was more Jack the lad than Jack Sprat (a name used to describe short people a long time ago and one Lay often used himself).

The play, running at the Finborough Theatre in Chelsea, London until 8 July, is written by playwright Naomi Wallace and historian Marcus Rediker – Wallace’s play Returning to Haifa previously ran at the Finborough in 2018.

It’s a clever take on Lay as he is brought back to life 300 years after he died. Pleading with the Quaker community (the audience) to readmit him into their fold, he then considers how different – kinder and fairer – the world could have been if slavery had been cut off at its roots.

Photo by Robert Boulton

Lay is played by Mark Povinelli, President of the Little People’s Association. And quite magnificent he is as he holds court for 75 minutes, taking us through Lay’s personal journey.

It’s a difficult ask – props are few and far between – but on the whole it’s captivating, questioning theatre, helped by Lay’s mesmerising performance and a delicious script.

Yes, some may find the one-hander format of the play a little gruelling at time – and the theatre’s lack of powerful air conditioning doesn’t help matters. But Povinelli spices things up by also playing his antagonists and regularly changing attire. Along the way,  there’s a bit of blood, ladder climbing and a galaxy of gold stars that temporarily glisten in the theatre’s stifled air.

Alongside the horrors described (men being hung from trees in Barbados for doing no more than talking about a slave uprising), there are dollops of humour and the exposing of hypocrisy.

The Quakers, some of them implicit in the slave trade, get a good tongue lashing, as does Lay’s publisher Benjamin Franklin, a slave owner.

Some of the descriptions about love are beautiful. When Lay kisses his Deptford wife-to-be Sarah for the first time, he says it ‘hits me like a rogue wave I never saw coming’. He then asks the audience (yes, participation is required): ‘Do you remember the kind of kiss that cuts you off at the ankles?’

All in all, The Return Of Benjamin Lay, directed by Ron Daniels, is an important ground-breaking play about a key issue that scars our past and haunts the present (just think about the recent apology made by the Guardian newspaper concerning its founders’ links to the slave trade ).

Superbly written and brought to life by Povinelli, The Return Of Benjamin Lay is challenging theatre that the Finborough is famous for. Thought-provoking, a glimpse into our embarrassing past. It is of the moment. It is a must see, but bring a hand fan.


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