Review: ★★★★★ Freeman, The Pleasance Theatre

Freeman begins with six people on stage, fighting and grappling. It is violent and the scene ends with five characters on the floor motionless. They have been killed and the fast paced-hour that follows tells their stories.

At sixteen, William Freeman, a young man of African and Native American descent, is wrongly convicted of horse stealing and sentenced to five years of hard labor. Badly beaten in prison he suffers from brain damage which leads him to kill a white family in 1846. He pleads insanity as his defence but is found guilty and sentenced to death. An autopsy discloses that he suffered from advanced brain deterioration. From William Freeman to Sarah Reed, Freeman explores six different true stories to examine the link between mental health and systemic racism in the UK and the US.

The play wants to be inclusive and creates a parallel between the story of William Freeman and Daniel McNaughton who was tried for the murder of Edward Drummond, pleaded insanity and was found not guilty. This helps to give some context to the play and show that people gets different treatments based on their skin color. Has anything changed?

Nothing has changed. 1960s the audience meets David Oluwale, a British Nigerian. Oluwale is young, fun and full of dreams. He dances in Lagos. The scene is fantastic. The entire cast joins in for a few minutes of pure joy giving a breathing space to the audience. Fast forward few years and he is found drowned in Leeds after becoming homeless and suffering from brutal and systematic harassment. The play also tells the story of three people, from 2005 onwards, found hanged in their cells: Michael Bailey serving a four year sentence for cocaine dealing, Sandra Bland arrested during a traffic stop and Sarah Reed who suffered mental health issues known to the authorities.

The show wants to give a voice to people who no longer have one but should not be forgotten. A scene of projected hashtags with names of people who died gives the audience a sense of the scale of the issue. It is bigger than the play. Taser sounds add to the horror. Why are we still battling the same things? Is it inevitable?

Freeman is a collaboration between writer Camilla Whitehill and Strictly Arts. It is a beautiful and powerful piece of physical theatre, dancing, singing and shadow playing. The cast is fantastic and keeps the momentum and the tension building while playing a multitude of characters with different backgrounds and accents.

The play starts a discussion about mental health. It raises important and familiar questions about the treatment of people with serious mental illness by the criminal justice system, and how it is connected with the institutional racism faced by black British and American citizens. It is powerful but it is only the start of a discussion that needs to be continued.

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