Review: The Meaning of Zong, Barbican

An abhorrent story is given a striking theatrical interpretation in Giles Terera’s The Meaning of Zong at the Barbican

“They know it’s wrong, they just don’t want to do anything about it”

Giles Terera’s debut play The Meaning of Zong was forced into a radio premiere in 2021 by you-know-what but this Bristol Old Vic production finally made it to the stage there last year and is now touring the UK, carefully choosing its venues to engage them with the discussion about the enduring legacy of slavery in the UK and the ways in which we choose (or not) to remember.

The inspiration is a story almost too horrible to be true. The Zong was a slave ship which, in 1781, threw 132 people overboard as the owners would be able to claim them as “lost cargo” on an insurance claim. Upon becoming aware of the case, a campaigner (re-)named Gustavus Vassa engaged an anti-slavery legal expert Granville Sharp to contest it and in doing so, kickstarted both the abolitionist movement and a personal awakening is coming to embrace his heritage and true name of Olaudah Equiano.

Perhaps aware that the court transcripts alone might not offer enough dramatic opportunity, Terera folds in all manner of theatrical devices and along with fellow co-director Tom Morris, all manner of theatrical techniques in their presentation. Movement, modern-day accounts of the Black experience, animation, mesmerising rope work, enactments of real scenes, the creation of invented scenes, a lot gets thrown at the wall which results in a production that sometimes feels a little too uneven.

In some ways, you can see that Terera is on a hiding to nothing. You could say that he’s often too didactic around key points; but equally if we were to be left to our own devices, he can just gesture to the glacial pace of any meaningful acknowledgement of colonialism in this country. Lord knows David Hare isn’t writing about this shit so all power to Terera for tackling such a brutal subject in the first place and doing so with such imagination.

If I wasn’t sure that the extended movement section that takes up a good chunk of the second half really works so well, the presence of on-stage musician Sidiki Dembele is a masterstroke, his weaving of West African musical influences throughout the show a powerful thread that draws the audience in with soul and skill. Perhaps the production is a touch uneven but it is never less than powerfully thought-provoking theatre.

Running time: 2 hours 25 minutes (with interval)
Photo: Jemima Yong
The Meaning of Zong is booking at the Barbican until 23rd April

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