Not-a-Review: Jefferson’s Garden, St James Theatre

“I wonder how I will make the potatoes understand”

Just a quickie to cover the last of Out of Joint’s rehearsed readings to accompany Our Country’s Good at the St James Theatre which was a world premiere of a new play, Jefferson’s Garden. As a work-in-progress, the convention is not to say too much but I have to say that this will be a play to look out for in the future because I found it an incredibly accomplished piece of work, even at this early stage, and it made for a highly enjoyable afternoon. 

Starting in the midst of the American revolution and stretching from a Quaker farm in Maryland to a politicised Philadelphia to the Virginian gardens of Monticello, Jefferson’s Garden looks at the birth of a nation in all its huge political and social upheaval and examines the price paid by people on all levels, from the statesmen pushing through new laws to the slaves praying for emancipation. 

At the top, we follow Thomas Jefferson on his rise to become a key part of the government and alongside his story is Christian’s, a young man from a Quaker farm who sacrifices everything he believes in for the sake of his homeland. Both men have a complicated relationship with the issue of race – Jefferson’s involvement in the abolition of slavery is complicated by the hundreds of slaves he keeps and Christian struggles to balance his personal and familial relations with his political ambition as he gets involved in his own heady rise, leaving him torn between head and heart. 

The beauty of Wertenbaker’s writing here is that the text is laden with contemporary resonances which never feel forced. The relationship between the US and the UK, the inherent imbalance in the majority making the decisions about minorities, the compromises necessary to get legislation through government, race relations, so much of it feels fresh and relevant without ever losing sight of the main thrust of the story which is highly engaging in and of itself, laced with wit and intelligence.

Adrian Noble pulled together a highly talented cast who worked miracles on just four hours of rehearsal – Alex Jennnings, Sam Troughton, Joanne Pearce and Nikki Amuka-Bird get my special mentions – and the five strong Chorus were also excellent, the playwright using them in a fascinating way which paid off brilliantly even in this bare-bones setting. Perhaps I’ve said too much, but I cannot wait for Jefferson’s Garden to make its official bow in a theatre conveniently close to me – and I am glad I can say I was there the first time it was read out loud.

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