Major Dublin revival for award-winning play by Essex playwright

  • Date

    Thu 23 May 24

Elizabeth Kuti

An award-winning play, originally written in 2005, by Professor Elizabeth Kuti, is opening at Dublin’s Abbey Theatre as part of an ambitious project celebrating women writers.

The Sugar Wife, which won the Susan Smith Blackburn Prize in 2006, opens on 18 June.

Originally commissioned by the Rough Magic Theatre Company in 2005, The Sugar Wife is set in Dublin in 1850 and explores the moral dilemmas faced by abolitionist Quakers, who relied on the sugar industry for their famous tea-houses.

It has been revived for The Gregory Project, which features seven major plays by women playwrights. The project marks 120 years of the National Theatre of Ireland and honours the legacy of co-founder and playwright Lady Gregory.

Professor Kuti’s play explores themes of trade, colonialism, money and slavery through the lens of the Tewkley family – inspired by the real-life Bewleys who as Quakers were at the heart of the 19th century abolitionist movement in Ireland.

“The setting in 1850 is supposed to offer some theatrical time travel in order to talk about today’s issues but from a distance,” she explained.

“The Tewkleys in my play have very high moral standards and are ethically conscientious but nonetheless become drawn into having to make difficult decisions about whether to get cheaper sugar cane for their cafes from the southern United States, which still depended on slavery, or more expensive sugar from British colonies where slavery had by this time been abolished.”

It was a story that Professor Kuti had discovered after living in Dublin for over a decade.

“I wanted to tell an Irish story and to tell a story that hadn’t been told before,” she said.

Despite being set in 1850, it’s a story that remains relevant today.

“I wanted to explore the dilemmas that we are all caught up in, these huge forces of capitalism, economics and history. More than ever, with every step we take in our daily lives, we have to think about the bigger picture and we want to do the right thing. But the little decisions that we have to make reveal bigger problems that we face as a species,” Professor Kuti explained.

This new production in Ireland offered Professor Kuti and the director Anabelle Comyn the chance to revisit the play for the post-Black Lives Matter world.

“The play features a character who is a formerly enslaved woman who’s been freed and comes to Dublin to speak. Twenty years on, I ask myself ‘is this an act of cultural appropriation, and should a black writer rewrite these passages?’ But the Abbey decided to retain the play more or less as it was,” Professor Kuti explained.

“I hope, what comes out of this revival, is that more black Irish playwrights have their work produced on main stages – that would be an ideal outcome.”

The Sugar Wife previews from 13 June and opens on 18 June at the Abbey Theatre in Dublin and runs until 20 July.