Slave. The word still has power, but, for many, its connotations are historical, distant in place and time, something for the kids to write about in their GCSEs - in other words, safe for water cooler conversations. In Feelgood Theatre's emotionally supercharged Slave A Question of Freedom (at The Riverside Studios until 1 October), those five letters are catapulted into the present day, into London and, at the end of the performance I saw, our own comfortable lives, as the woman whose story we had seen on stage, Mende Nazer, joined the director and cast for the curtain call. There was tumultuous applause, admiration and, yes, love all around.
Based on the book written by Ms Nazer and Damien Lewis, the play follows this brave, clever, much-loved girl from an idyllic childhood telling stories round a fire that burns in the foothills of Sudan's Nuba mountains, through a mujaheedin raid during the appalling conflict that raged through that vast country in the 90s, and on to rape, sale and imprisonment in the home of a cruel Khartoum family for whom she works all-day, every day. Losing her real name, she buries her identity and survives, robbed not just of a childhood, but of a life in anything but the most basic sense. Passed on to the London-based sister of her master, Mende suppresses her fear long enough to make contact with fellow Nubas who help her escape from such unspeakable conditions - but then she faces a new fight for freedom as her application for asylum is initially rejected by the British government.
Such material cannot do anything but affect an audience deep in their souls, but it needs sensitivity in its re-creation in a theatre, to make such horror truly believable. Caroline Clegg's direction does exactly that - knowing that the story is enough, using the minimum of back-projections to suggest the changing locations from the mountains of Africa to the markets of Shepherds Bush. Holding this vast panorama of pain together is Ebony Adjuah Feare who delivers an extraordinarily strong performance as Mende, all girlish giggling at first, then dumbstruck by the enormity of the horrors visited upon her, before the indomitable spirit that has sustained her burns brighter and brighter as freedom comes closer and closer. She is on stage for almost the entire duration of this emotional rollercoaster and it was a lovely moment when Mende and the actress who had portrayed her so sensitively, embraced with such warmth at the curtain call. Ms Adjuah Feare is supported by a fine cast in which Elena Pavli is particularly impressive as Rahad, Mende's tormentor in Khartoum.
Wrung out, the audience leaves knowing that the horrible word Slave retains all its hideous power and that the brave men and women of two centuries ago who succeeded in abolishing slavery in the Old and New Worlds, need successors every bit as committed to the cause in order to rid the Developing World and beyond of this blight on humanity. Mende Nazer has borne witness and set that challenge - it's time to see if she can be served as well by politicians and activists as she has by actors and writers.