*contains mild spoilers*
After about three false starts trying to write this blog, I’m not sure I’m ever going to be able to do this show justice. I’d never heard of “Dessa Rose” before – I didn’t even know where the venue it was being held at was – but I did know the name Cynthia Erivo and that was enough for me. I’d had the pleasure of seeing Cynthia live at one of Scott Alan’s concerts back in May and she truly is an extraordinary talent.
As it turned out, I’d walked past Trafalgar Studios hundreds of times before on my adventures around London. It’s not one venue but three, each studio putting on a show simultaneously. “Dessa Rose” was being held in Studio Two, a room with just three rows of seating on three walls, with the front wall serving as a backdrop for the show. The musicians were dotted around the room and it reminded me immediately of the Southwark Playhouse, although much more intimate.
“This powerful and moving story, set in 1846 in the ante-bellum South, follows two young women on their journey to acceptance. Passionate and innocent Dessa Rose is a young slave faced with a barrage of hardships because of the colour of her skin while Ruth, a young white mother, faces difficulties because of her gender. Through this extraordinary tale, Ruth and Dessa discover the value of unconditional friendship and establish a deep and lasting bond.” That synopsis was all I had to go on, so when the show started I had no idea what to expect.
One of the first things that struck me was Cassidy Janson. She played Ruth alongside Cynthia Erivo’s Dessa Rose and she was a fascinating actress to watch. Ruth’s mother had always told her to act as a lady – straight back, proper dress, polite demeanour. Throughout the show I noticed little things about Cassidy’s performance – she would sit down and slouch slightly, and then draw herself back up, her back poker-straight, as if she was remembering the lessons her Mother had taught her. Such a simple touch that could easily be missed, but her commitment to the role and her understanding and portrayal of Ruth was something very special to watch.
From the outset there were some shocking moments that had me crying out and reaching towards the stage as if to try and stop the horror unfolding. The choreography of these moments was so precise that it really did seem violent and spontaneous – there was no time for the actors to think, they just reacted and it made the show so raw that it was almost uncomfortable to watch. I had to remind myself several times that, while this story may not be true, thousands of others did suffer like this. It wasn’t just the product of some warped mind, deliberately setting out to shock and stun. It was real.
Jon Robyns played Adam Nehemiah, a man who had come to see Dessa, now pregnant and languishing in prison, to document her story. Day after day he listened to Dessa’s plight and, although it was never spoken, it was clear through his actions and things he said to himself, that he was falling in love with Dessa. It seemed that Dessa was intrigued by this man too – until she took advantage of his lapse of concentration by hitting him over the head with a bedpan and making a break for it. I have to admit I didn’t see that coming!
With the help of her friends Harker (Gabriel Mokake) and Nathan (Edward Baruwa) Dessa escapes to Ruth’s farm where she has her baby, who Ruth begins to nurse because Dessa is too frail and emaciated to produce any milk. Dessa sees this as Ruth taking ownership of her child and, despite Ruth’s insistence, refuses to name her child until she is free.
I have to mention Edward Baruwa who plays Nathan. I fell head over heels for the energy and mischief surrounding his character and, through the whole of the second act, was sat on the very edge of my seat praying that nothing bad would happen to him. In another show his forbidden romance with Ruth would have been cliché and maybe even a bit boring, but the way Cassidy Janson and he played it, you longed for them to be together and cursed the fact that they could never be. Their love scene was delicate and hesitant and beautiful and I found myself holding my breath, not wanting to intrude on their very private moment.
I won’t tell too much about the ending, only that it was an unexpectedly happy, albeit bittersweet one. Cynthia Erivo is a truly sensational talent, playing Dessa Rose perfectly, not once breaking character despite a few scenes which must have been tough to perform. She was in love, heartbroken, bitter, hardened, happy, desolate, broken, scared and oh so beautiful and you couldn’t help but care for and even cry for this poor young girl.
The entire cast was flawless, especially performing in such an intimate space where it must have been so hard to concentrate and stay in character with the audience in such close proximity. I made a point of tweeting the director Andrew Keates to tell him what an absolute gem of a show he has created, and he and the cast and crew fully deserve all of the praise being heaped on them. “Dessa Rose” is a hard-hitting yet beautiful show with a solid cast and a storyline that makes you weep with sadness and joy and I cannot recommend it enough.