Review: Jefferson’s Garden, Watford Palace Theatre

“We have to ask you to be gender-blind, colour-blind, age-blind, shape-blind, but in all other ways perceptive”

I actually saw a reading of Timberlake Wertenbaker’s new play Jefferson’s Garden in 2013 when it formed part of the extracurricular activities surrounding the run of Out of Joint’s Our Country’s Good at the St James and blogged quite extensively about it as it was a play that really struck me as one to look out for. Less than two years down the line, it has now received its first production at the hands of director Brigid Larmour and the Watford Palace Theatre where it runs until 21st February and doesn’t appear to have any life anticipated beyond that.

Which is a shame as I do think it is a fine piece of writing. Wertenbaker’s history play takes place during the American War of Independence but makes a sterling case for how the compromises in the creation of a society then have echoed throughout time to become the issues that still blight the USA today. She also plays with the way in which historical narratives are constructed (theatrical ones too) through the voice of a Chorus who stalk the action, identifying the difficulties of converting the dreams of idealism into the practicalities of the real world.

At times it is a little drily put together, the straight historical scenes a little too, well, straight as the contrasting journeys of a young Quaker named Christian – who abandons his principles in pursuit of what he believes to be the larger dream of a new nation’s self-determination and Thomas Jefferson, a bundle of contradictions who has to reconcile the lofty ambitions of the Declaration of Independence with the realities of forging a working alliance between fractious states, a libertarian in word but also a multiple slave owner and father to several illegitimate children.

But Larmour keeps things simple and smooth, making the weighty historical content as digestible as possible even if it could afford to be trimmed down a little further and in the compassionate and tortured performances of David Burnett and William Hope as leads Christian and Jefferson respectively, has a winner on her hands. The whole company is good though – Mimi Ndiweni and Burt Caesar encapsulate a world of unknowable pain as two slaves yearning for a freedom that is elusively so near and yet so far. An intriguing work from an always intriguing writer.

Running time: 2 hours 30 minutes (with interval)
Booking until 21st February

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