Jodie Kidd brings story of love and slavery to the London stage

Supermodel’s family revive operetta based on 17th-century story of American Indian slave

The “true and exact history” of Yarico, a 17th-century female slave, goes to the core of the shame of slavery in the Caribbean. Bringing the story back to the stage has been a personal mission for more than a decade for former supermodel Jodie Kidd and her father, John.

Now their musical version of the powerful romance will finally be seen by audiences in London – for the first time since the popular operetta Yarico and Inkle packed in the Georgian crowds.

“My heart is really in this. It is such a poignant love story,” said Jodie Kidd this weekend, “but it is a lot more than that. It really is a story that, as it became popular, helped change the course of history.”

Kidd grew up on Barbados, alongside her makeup artist sister, Jemma, and their polo-playing brother, Jack, and the family became a cultural fixture on the island when their home, a former plantation mansion called Holders, became the venue for an annual arts festival.

“Jodie’s mother, Wendy, started the festival 25 years ago,” said her father. “And then, in 1996, I was approached by the editor of The Advocate, the island’s newspaper. He had come across some songs from the original operetta while he was attending an evening of colonial song and dance held at Yale University. He was a history buff, so he knew it was based on a story about Barbados and he went to the university library, found the libretto and gave it to me.”

Soon after reading the libretto, John Kidd, who is the grandson of the newspaper baron Lord Beaverbrook and now lives in Canada, unearthed the harpsichord score for the first London production of the operetta – at the Haymarket Theatre in 1787 – at the Theatre Museum in London’s Covent Garden and decided to stage it at Holders. In 1997, it was performed again in a setting that added a modern twist to the tale of relations between black and white in the Caribbean. In cosmopolitan Barbados, said Jodie Kidd, the legacy of slavery is rarely in the foreground.

“When I was at school in Barbados I did learn about the history of the island, but there was not much sense of a racial problem when I was growing up because it is such a modern island and has people from all over the world coming in and out all the time,” she said. “More than any other of the islands in the Caribbean, it has always been super popular. So when it came to racial conflict, I didn’t really get to see any one incident of it as I grew up.”

The story of Yarico, a slave on the Spanish main who protects an English sailor, Inkle, who goes on to betray her and sell her into slavery on Barbados, was a powerful reminder of the dark heritage of slavery. “It is a story that needs to be heard again and really listened to and it was perfect for Holders, where we have had so many great performers,” said Jodie Kidd.

The festival, for which tickets can cost more than £100, attempts to open up access to the island population by offering free seats for schools and for those who cannot pay. If the updated musical succeeds in London, John Kidd aims to see it regularly performed in schools on the island and across the Caribbean. “The story of Inkle and Yarico was so important in the 1700s to the way we viewed slavery. It was part of a whole shift in attitudes,” he said, explaining his decision to produce it for the London stage. “It is a story that has been around for such a long time in poems and songs. It was the start of the concept of the ‘noble savage’, as opposed to the common idea that the blacks were all cannibals or not really human.”

The new show, called simply Yarico, has music by James McConnell – the composer who works with Kit Hesketh-Harvey – a book by Carl Miller and lyrics by Paul Leigh, and will receive its world premiere at the London Theatre Workshop in Chelsea in February.

The story has its origins, however, in around 1650, when traveller Richard Ligon met a female Amerindian slave in Barbados and returned to England to write A True and Exact History of the Island of Barbados, telling of “poor Yarico” who “for her love, lost her liberty”.

In 1713 Sir Richard Steele, the editor of the Spectator, who also owned land in Barbados, printed his own romanticised version of the tale. Over the next 50 years, different takes on the story abounded and, in 1787, Inkle and Yarico opened at the Haymarket, with a libretto by the popular playwright George Colman the Younger (who also ran the theatre), and music by the King’s Composer, Dr Samuel Arnold. It became one of the most popular plays of its time, performed 98 times at that theatre and 164 times across the west end, as well as in India and America, but the meaning of the story and its sad ending were remoulded, as John Kidd learned.

“The famous actor of the day, Jack Bannister – the actor you really had to have in your play – was cast in it, and then, on the first day of rehearsals, he walked out. Colman supposedly ran down the street after him to ask what the problem was and Bannister said: ‘I am simply not able to perform the role of Mr Inkle because he is the biggest shit ever.’ So they changed the ending for him.”

For John Kidd, the revival of the real story will be an important reminder of one of the cultural landmarks in the struggle to abolish slavery. For his daughter, it is the exciting culmination of a long interest in Yarico’s fate. “When I was a girl, I remember listening to my dad finding out about this incredible story. I didn’t realise then the power it had. I just remember my dad’s excitement and loving the fact that it had all happened in Barbados.”


Vanessa Thorpe

The GuardianTramp

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