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  • Chris O'Rourke

The Sugar Wife

Siobhan Cullen in The Sugar Wife. Image by Ros Kavanagh


Saturation. Too much of a good thing. Like Stephen Graham. Some days it seems you can’t change the channel without seeing the brilliant Liverpudlian actor on screen. Or Siobhán Cullen. Poster girl for Irish television gracing not one, but three critically acclaimed television series; Bodkin, The Dry and Obituary. Currently appearing in The Sugar Wife by Elizabeth Kuti at the Abbey Theatre. Cullen living proof that you can never have too much of a good thing. Even as The Sugar Wife evidences when you don’t have enough. A play whose micro moral interrogations are soon eclipsed by its macro nihilism.

Tierra Porter, Chris Walley, Peter Gaynor and Siobhan Cullen in The Sugar Wife. Image by Ros Kavanagh

Set in 1850, during the height of the Great Famine and the rise of the Victorian era, and just five years after Black abolitionist Fredrick Douglas lectured throughout Ireland, The Sugar Wife’s historical grounding is more on point than might at first seem. Especially as its themes get skewered through a modern, fair trade, historical revisionist lens. Samuel and Hannah Tewkley, moralist Quakers who own a Dublin tea company (no prizes for spotting similarities with another Quaker family who set up a popular Dublin tea shop in 1840), prepare to host two American guests. Photographer Alfred Darby and former slave Sarah Worth on a visit to Ireland. Kuti’s episodic script with its signalled scene changes a novel aspiring to be a screenplay masquerading as a play. Action frequently dragging with nothing much happening beyond endless exposition and backstory. Aside from the guests arrival and two brief charitable visits to the waif-like prostitute, Martha, by intermission there’s little action of interest to report.

Siobhan Cullen and Síofra Ní Éilí in The Sugar Wife. Image by Ros Kavanagh

Post intermission proves more promising. Conversations between the worldly Samuel and the manipulatively aspirational Alfred explore the power dynamics of their relationships with women. Culminating in a badly judged confession and Samuel’s request for Alfred to take a racy photo of his puritan wife should she agree to it. Hannah agreeing to it and then some, even if you don’t quite buy it, or the speed at which she agrees. The script’s cinematic aspirations evident in a clichéd, music video sex scene, set to Philip Stewart’s modern soundtrack, crackling with the sexual chemistry of a flaccid lily. As if characters are having sex solely because the author insists on it. Still, it manages to produce the desired narrative effect, kicking doors open to reveal secrets, offset by a staggered monologue about murder and rape on a slave ship. Throughout, if redemption is thin on the ground, hope proves an impossible dream. Learn to survive or die. Blame the game not the player. Nothing changes, we just swap sins, for therein lies freedom. The spiritual parable always lost to the secular story. Which Kuti’s characters always knew, but pretended they didn’t. Desire, when realised, more real than any remote heaven.

Tierra Porter in The Sugar Wife. Image by Ros Kavanagh

Whilst Kuti’s feminist, anti-racist polemic is front and centre, it would be unfair to reduce the script to these primary concerns. Kuti has an ocean of fish to fry. Art versus pornography, religion versus business, morality versus what’s truly moral, the existential poverty we call life. Characters representing a clash of virtues declaimed from crumbling pedestals. Chris Walley’s fetishising Darby a knock-off D.H Laurence. Tierra Porter’s slavery survivor Sarah a mix of dignified practicality and worldly cunning. Peter Gaynor’s brilliant Samuel oozing greed and desire from every sanitised pore. More honest in his worldliness than the virtuous hypocrites surrounding him. Living an enforced morality he has no real interest in. A morality laughed at by a scene stealing Síofra Ní Éilí as the syphilitic Martha. A superbly understated Siobhan Cullen providing the lynchpin as Hannah, infusing Kuti’s Jane Eyre with a touch of The French Lieutenant's Woman. Whose spotless morality is anything but. Kuti’s women negotiating their emancipation and independence from well intentioned, saviour men looking to liberate them. All the while the horror of slavery looms.

Siobhan Cullen in The Sugar Wife. Image by Ros Kavanagh

If director Annabelle Comyn elicits strong performances, the structural tensions between a novel passed off as a play are never fruitfully resolved. Paul O’ Mahony’s minimal set vacillating between the liminal and the bland. Paul Keogan’s chiaroscuro lights a tad more successful given the word chiaroscuro gets mentioned several times. Molly O’Cathain’s costumes most successful of all. A colourful silk kimono offsetting Cullen’s ash grey Quakerisms hinting at larger, global associations which Kuti frequently alludes to. Travelling full circle to where it all begun, inner monologues are transformed now we have the full, hopeless story. But the backdrop image of waves leaves you wondering why the daguerreotypes you hoped to see never materialised as a safety screen is curiously dropped during the final monologue.

Siobhan Cullen in The Sugar Wife. Image by Ros Kavanagh

Originally produced by Rough Magic, and winner of the Susan Smith Blackburn Award in 2006, as well as being nominated for an Irish Times Theatre Award for Best New Play, The Sugar Wife talks the talk, and it certainly likes to talk, culminating in moral nihilism. Equating women’s suffering under patriarchy with the worse atrocities of slavery a point rather than a case being made. In speaking to the historical Black female experience, Kuti does a competent job as advocate, but Alice Walker, Toni Morrison or Zora Neale Hurston speak better. To Kuti’s immense credit, she’s unafraid of creating flawed characters. Pharisees rather than victims awaiting their stoning. Forgiveness having no place amongst these hypocrites, liars, adulterers, manipulators and would be saviours. Their selfish dreams too personal and too small. Reality far too big. Tolerance the best that can be hoped for. Humanity forever renegotiating the terms of its hypocrisy. As it was, in the beginning, is now and ever shall be.

The Sugar Wife by Elizabeth Kuti, presented by The Abbey Theatre, runs at The Abbey Theatre until July 20.

For more information visit The Abbey Theatre

1 Comment

Hannah Skoonberg
Hannah Skoonberg
Jul 01

One glaring issue with this play is that Georgia was not a sugar state. Cotton yes. Tobacco yes. Sugar no.

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