The Meaning of Zong

Apr 15 2022 | By More

★★★★★   Stunning

Royal Lyceum Theatre: Wed 13 – Sat 22 Apr 2022
Review by Hugh Simpson

The Meaning of Zong at the Lyceum for a two week stay, is a hugely important, superbly staged piece of theatre.

Writer Giles Terera (who also co-directs with Tom Morris) has been trying to get his version of the events surrounding the The Zong massacre of 1781 onstage for several years. Finally it has arrived in a production by the Bristol Old Vic in association with the Lyceum, and it is more than worth any wait.

Alice Vilanculo (Riba). Pic Curtis Richard

The Zong was a British slave ship whose crew, worried about low water stocks, murdered more than 130 enslaved Africans by throwing them overboard. The ship’s owners then claimed on their insurance for the loss of ‘cargo’.

Much of Terera’s brilliantly written play deals with the efforts of Olaudah Equiano, the abolitionist later to write a noted autobiography dealing with his time in slavery, to bring the events of the Zong to public notice.

The events of the massacre, and the life of Equiano, are now much more widely taught than was once the case, but still remain shamefully little-known.

magnetic stage presence

Equiano is played by Terera himself, and as befits an Olivier Award-winning performer, he is a magnetic stage presence. However, he could not be said to dominate events in what is very much an ensemble piece.

A parallel structure shows the efforts of Equiano and Granville Sharp (Paul Higgins) to bring the ship’s crew and owners to justice, in tandem with events on the Zong itself.

MIchael Elcock (Ottobah Cugoano) and Giles Terera (Olaudah Equiano). Pic Curtis Richard

Higgins displays real passion and skill as the driven Sharp. Michael Elcock, as the political activist Ottobah Cugoano, has a sparkling fierceness, as well as a bewitching twinkle that helps to light some of the darker moments. The story of the ship is given a desperate lyricism by Kiera Lester, Bethan Mary-James and Alice Vilanculo as three enslaved Africans.

Most of the ensemble excel as more than one character, and it is completed by Simon Holland Roberts, Eliza Smith and Remi King (the latter two impressing in their first professional stage roles).

This structure, like the elegant modern-day framing at the beginning and end of the play, never seems gimmicky, but feels entirely natural. This is also true of the switching of tone from the urgently political through the personal to the poetic and almost fantastical at times.

always compelling

A large part of the atmosphere is provided by the onstage musical director Sidiki Dembele. His backing – on the kora-like kamelen ngoni, the banjo-ancestor djeli ngoni, as well as djembe and a battery of other percussion – ranges from the melodic to the urgently driving, and is always compelling.

Sidiki Dembele (On Stage Musical Director). Pic Curtis Richard

Dembele is assisted by the efforts of co-composer and sound designer Dave Price. On occasion, other members of the cast provide added percussion, which – like the movement direction of Ingrid Mackinnon – adds greatly to the effect of the action.

At times certain elements of the production which are otherwise outstanding – the design of Jean Chan, the lighting of Zeynep Kepekli and the video design (byTom Newell of Limbic Cinema with Will Duke) threaten to become intrusively over-emphatic. That nothing ever crosses that line is testament to the extraordinary theatrical intelligence of Terera and Morris as well as the efforts of all concerned.

It has to be stressed that, although it is necessarily dark at times, and well deserving of the several trigger warnings posted on the Lyceum door, this production is also a testament to the boundless possibilities for theatrical invention and the human capacity for change.


It is also sadly as timely as ever. While the links to the slave trade in Edinburgh may not be as immediately obvious as they are in Bristol, the evidence that the city’s wealth was built on the deaths of millions can be found in street names, statues and buildings all over town.

And, as the first scene of this play points out, there is still an unwillingness to accept that the British slave trade had anything to do with Britain. In a week where the government have made clear that they still openly regard human beings as commodities to be traded, the past is still being ignored.

This is not one of those plays where a reviewer should spend time thinking up clever things to say. Just go and see it.

Running time 2 hours 30 minutes including one interval
Royal Lyceum Theatre, Grindlay Street, EH3 9AX
Wednesday 13 – Saturday 23 April 2022.
Evenings Mon-Sat 7.30 pm, Matinees Wed, Thurs, Sat 2.30 pm
Socially Distanced Performances: Tuesday 19
Information and tickets: Book here

The Meaning of Zong on tour:

Bristol Old Vic, King Street, Bristol, BS1 4ED.
Tue 26 April – Sat 7 May 2022
Mon- Sat: 7.30pm, Mats Thurs/Sat: 2.30pm.
Tickets and Details: Book here.

Liverpool Playhouse, Williamson Square, Liverpool, L1 1EL
Tue 10 – Sat 14 May 2022
Tue – Sat: 7.30pm; Matinees Thurs: 1.30pm, Sat: 2.00pm.
Tickets and Details: Book here.

The script is published by Nick Hearn Books and available from our Bookshop Page: click here.
It is also available direct from the publisher: click here.
And from Amazon: click here.

Bethan Mary-James (Joyi) and Alice Vilanculo (Riba). Pic Curtis Richard


Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Comments (2)

Trackback URL | Comments RSS Feed

  1. Simon Holland Roberts says:

    Dear Hugh,
    I never read reviews, let alone write back to them!?! but yours was thrust at me by a friend here in Edinburgh. Thank you for truly ‘getting’ our production, and feeling it’s need for resonance in the world.
    Giles has been working on this monster of a play for many years, and it is testament to his bravery and resilience that so many can now see it. Never underestimate your power of sway in this world. From the Millions of people who have suffered, I would personally like to thank you for using your platform to drive change.
    You are a good man Hugh! Saluté

  2. Suzanne Senior says:

    Saw it last night. Fabulous production!