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Daniel Nelson

The Great Experiment is one of those plays that justifies itself simply by being staged.

The title refers to the British Government’s 1842 decision to open Mauritius to Indian labourers to produce sugar, following the official abolition of slavery seven years earlier.

A memorial in Port Louis records what ensued:  the arrival of 453,063 Indians, to be followed by another 1.5 million to other colonies, Fiji and South Africa. “It transformed the demographic make-up of those territories and continues to have global ramifications,” says historian Marina Carter’s programme note for the Border Crossings theatre company’s 90-minute dramatisation of those epochal events.

“Was this an act of breath-taking hypocrisy, or a stroke of genius?” Carter asks. “Was indenture merely slavery under another name or more akin to the contemporaneous migrations of Irish and other impoverished white working-class groups?  Historians have long wrestled with these questions, some of which seem peculiarly relevant to modern debates about ‘free movement’ and ‘ immigration controls’ in the Brexit era.”

 

Who in this country knows about this massive upheaval of humanity? Hardly anyone. That’s not surprising given how few have more than a rudimentary knowledge about Britain’s role in – and huge economic benefits from – slavery or about colonialism.

 

Even if this play were awful, Border Crossings would win plaudits for spreading the word about events that still reverberate, not least as Indian communities in a number of former British colonies fight for their rights and are involved in political, economic and social struggles. But he play is not awful:  it’s moving, powerful and hard-hitting.

 

It tackles this vast and complex issue on two fronts, giving faces and stories to people lost to history and dramatising the efforts of the actors, several of whom have Mauritian connections.

One of them, deviser and performer Nisha Dassyne - born in Mauritius, studied in India and worked in UK – has said in an interview: “Working on The Great Experiment, I’ve had to visit the ghosts and memories in my family. They have become more concrete, more human, more accessible.

“The connection to my ancestors isn’t just something to talk about anymore – it’s a real connection.”

The historical, informational elements are simply and deftly handled, but it’s when the play within the play gives voice to controversies over race and identity that the piece catches fire. At first it seems that contemporary resentments and stereotypes may be pushing historical education off the stage, but a moment’s reflection makes you realise that racism was an integral part of The Great Experiment and that the Great Experiment was an integral part of today’s racism.

+ The Great Experiment is at the Tara Theatre, 356 Garratt Lane, Earlsfield, SW18, until 15 February, and then

Tuesday 18-Wednesday 19 February, The Playground Theatre, Kensington
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Friday 21-Saturday 22 February, Cutty Sark, Greenwich
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21 February, post-show discussion: with Samita Sen, Andrea Major, Roshni Mooneeram, Janet Steel, Lainy Malkani

 

Sunday 23 February 
Museum of London Docklands, Isle of Dogs, post-show discussion with Sara Wajid, Martin Spafford,  Shiraz Bayjoo, Catherine Hall
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Saturday 29 February

National Maritime Museum, Greenwich 

 

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