Selina Thompson’s poetic and painful account of her attempt to retrace Britain's old slave-trading routes
Selina Thompson’s ‘Salt’ was the highlight of my 2017 Edinburgh Fringe, and I pretty much stand by what I said about it the first time around – it’s a painful and poetic monologue about the mental toll of living as a black person in ‘white’ society, bound up in a gripping travelogue and topped off with a wonderfully atmospheric electronic score.
Her soul-baring account of the gruelling sea voyage she took along the old slaving triangle (Europe-West Africa-West Indies-Europe), seeking some sort of peace with her identity as a black British woman, is worth a second look as it finally reaches London.
It’s changed somewhat. Thompson has stepped aside. Now, actor Rochelle Rose performs her words and wields her mallet as she ritualistically smashes up a boulder of rock salt over the show’s duration.
The literal differences in Dawn Walton’s production are fairly small. Thompson has a Brummie accent, Rose doesn’t. Rose is a professional actor, Thompson isn’t. Rose brings more range and dynamism to the part, though Thompson’s flatter, more pained account had an emotional authenticity that is difficult to replicate. It’s not an impersonation. It’s an accurate channelling that has probably resulted in a subtly different show.
This time I thought more about what Thompon’s extraordinary trip actually achieved. When she’s in Ghana after a spirit-sapping journey by cargo ship, she struggles with what she was really hoping to get out of all this. She visits the old slaving fort at Elmina, but the slaves are long gone and she notes the bitter irony that in chasing ghosts she missed her beloved nan’s funeral – a chance to mourn somebody she actually knew and loved. But the segment in Jamaica feels more hopeful and redemptive than I remember it – something like the peace she was looking for. And the communal gesture of making each audience member take a piece of the shattered salt crystal at the end seemed more meaningful. Perhaps a slight distance from Thompson herself gives her words room to sink in a bit more; probably it’s just that the show rewards repeat viewing.
In any case, ‘Salt’ is a remarkable piece of theatre. It’s taken two years for it to reach London and it’s only here for a couple of weeks. If you can see it, do see it.