Philobiblon: A less than sugary history

Monday, January 23, 2006

A less than sugary history

If conscience is to be your guide, is it actually possible to live in the world? If you put every action, every dependency, to intense moral questioning, how can you act at all? In today's secular world that's a question with which many individuals wrestle, and it is one that Quakers, and religious groups that like them put the focus on a guiding inner light, have been grappling for centuries.

These are the questions facing the two central characters in Elizabeth Kuti's The Sugar Wife, which has just transferred from Dublin, the setting of the play, to the Soho Theatre in London. But this is the 1840s Irish city, in a nation already on the edge of economic and social collapse.

Hannah Tewkley (Jane Brennan), an intense, mid-30s, childless Quaker wife almost consumed by a career in "good works", has an uneasy relationship with her own body, but an even more uncomfortable relationship with her husband Samuel (Barry Barnes). He is a tea, coffee and sugar merchant who plans to branch out into oriental tea-houses. He squares his own rather flexible conscience in using America - slave-grown - sugar, amidst other moral "crimes", by funding his wife's philanthropy and pointing to the likely fate of his employees were he to go out of business.

Into this volatile, uncomfortable house are invited - at the insistence of Hannah - two visiting anti-slavery campaigners, the former slave Sarah Worth (Susan Salmon) and the man who bought her out of slavery, the rich-boy turned rebel Alfred Darby (Robert Price). The latter has apparently solved the problem of conscience by living entirely by his principles - to the point, it emerges, of living on Sarah's earnings so he can devote himself to his "work" and to "art" (producing daguerreotypes). READ MORE


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