Review: Liberty at the Deptford Heritage Festival

What difference does it make? I remember a colleague telling me these words after reading one of my early drafts. Yes, she said, it’s a perfectly serviceable script. But what difference does it make? Meaning, what is the point of it? What do you want it to do? What message do you want people to take home?

I think about this question a lot when I watch theatre, especially political work. When I watch dramas about politics, movements, activists and revolutionaries, I find myself wondering about the intention of its authors. Is it to inform or inspire? Reflect views or challenge them? In other words, what difference does it make?

Liberty is about Kath Duncan, a left-wing activist from Scotland, whose arrest and landmark case advanced the rights of free speech in the United Kingdom. A perhaps under-sung heroine of the Labour movement, and advocate for political and social freedoms, her example is an inspiring one – a reminder of the sacrifices of others, and the need to carry on their legacy.

Liberty at Deptford Heritage Festival (2019).

Liberty at Deptford Heritage Festival (2019).

Liberty is an interesting and worthwhile tale – but not always a persuasive one. Part social history, musical, and parliamentary drama, the play explores Kath Duncan’s life, her arrest at the hands of the police, and the debate that followed. It is a somewhat muddled affair, with powerful set-pieces and catchy songs, yet let down by its earnest, wooden dialogue, and tell-not-show approach, which can feel ponderous and lecturing at times. Most crucially of all, Liberty lacks conflict, tension, and resolution – the key elements of any enjoyable drama.

Still, there is plenty to enjoy, learn, and reflect upon. Emily Carding is brilliantly cast as Duncan, whose commanding presence hides a vulnerability, smartly observed by Carding and powerfully performed. Ana Luiza Ulsig is a joy to watch too, switching between loyal comrade and pompous official with charm and wit. I was particularly impressed with Rona Topaz’s music direction, with beautiful performances of songs both lively and soaring, bolstered by the play’s divine Church setting and its excellent acoustics.

Liberty at Deptford Heritage Festival (2019)

Liberty at Deptford Heritage Festival (2019)

Liberty can feel truly immersive, helped in no small part by being set in Zion Baptist Church in Deptford. Meetings of workers and organisers would (and continue to) be held in such venues, so the setting is both appropriate and engrossing. The costuming is brilliant in its period detail, and I loved the creative use of the space as a meeting hall, office, and Houses of Parliament – skilfully employed by director Karen Douglas.

Photo courtesy of Deptford Job Centre

Photo courtesy of Deptford Job Centre

Kath Duncan’s story is significant in Deptford history. The area has undergone noticeable change in the past decade, perhaps best demonstrated by the rather gross appropriation of a Job Centre into a themed bar. Gentrification is one thing, but ironic gentrification is quite another, and seems quite insulting to the area’s working people, who may well be suffering from austerity, low wages, and scarce employment. Liberty is therefore important, celebrating the area’s radical history in one of its historic community centres, not yet lost to ‘development’.

But then the question. Leaving Liberty I wondered what the play’s impact might be, particularly on viewers who might be less than sympathetic to its heroine’s struggle, and that of working-class and Socialist movements. Perhaps the point of the play is not to win over people, but rather to celebrate a life and an achievement in the name of social justice. To that end, it certainly made a difference to me.  

Liberty is showing at Deptford Heritage Festival until February 28th. To book tickets, and find out more about the festival, please visit the website.