Updated: Aug 5, 2019
The National Theatre: Wednesday 29th May 2019. Review.
The Olivier set is limited. At first, all we have is a projected sea. The voyage has been long and hard, and it’s being reversed for real in some cases by hateful 21st century figures dominating nearby Westminster. On stage, we don’t quite have Jamaica the country, but the spirit of Jamaica is about to shine through as the cast steps into a dramatic maelstrom. We are in for a vibrant but chastening experience. Finally, after months of anticipation and a burst of media interest in shared history and white British culpability, it’s time to see Andrea Levy’s story unfold on the stage of the National Theatre.
The Olivier Theatre
We are witnessing the hopes, the dreams, the fears of a nation trying to make the Mother Country real. Determined to be British in every way. To journey far away from a land of despair, which is in that state due to the historic abuse by the very people they seek to join and emulate. Many small islanders wanted to join up and to conquer the Nazis during the second world war. The enemy of my even more evil enemy is my friend.
So, we have Michael Roberts (CJ Beckford) and Hortense (Leah Harvey) - adults on stage alongside their childhood selves. A nice touch. Then there is Michael’s stern, religious father, small minded and morally absolute. Unhappy too. And Gilbert Joseph (Gershwyn Eustace Jnr), a rough seeming mechanic who turns out to be a good man who keeps his promises. Apart from his promise to meet his wife off the boat.
Challenging the head of the family on creationism, a sure way to get estranged.
All production photos: Brinkhoff Moegenburg
Approaching the interval, a huge image of the SS Empire Windrush appears, in all of our faces. Silhouetted characters climb aboard and disappear behind the screen. This is the first time I want to cry at this performance. The second is when Arthur, the father-in-law of Queenie (Aisling Loftus), dies in the crossfire, shot by trigger-happy American military policemen. The third and final time I feel lachrymose is when Queenie hands over her baby to Hortense and Gilbert, knowing that to keep the child would lead to hatred and bitterness in the family and in the community in the future. (Nb - Baby Michael is the illicit love child from Queenie’s brief liaison with Airman Michael Roberts).
Michael Roberts (CJ Beckford) with Queenie Bligh (Aisling Loftus)
Throughout the scenes in Britain there is so much hatred. Such horrendous racism, from Bernard (Andrew Rothney), Gilbert’s colleagues, the GIs, the neighbours, landlords and people in the street determined not to just go about their business. Queenie’s neighbours’ sister was, we hear, rendered distraught when two black women failed to get out of her way and she had to step down from the pavement in order to pass by. The very idea!
Gilbert (Gershwyn Eustace Jnr) standing tall, facing racism in the workplace
The language is unbearable on at least two occasions. The N and the C words are heard. I will not write them down nor say them. But they belong in the script in this play. The only decent white person seems to be Queenie, and even she gets it wrong through ignorance.
Small Island is the story of many. A shared history of colonisation, slavery and migration and attempted integration. Jamaica, may be small but Britain is a small island too in many ways, not least small minded. The National Theatre has boldly presented this tale of setbacks and rejections besetting the small islanders who still wanted to come to the Mother Country, haplessly unaware of the severity of the cold climate and the harsh receptions awaiting them. In these current times of heightened social injustice, the nation needs to see this play and respond far better than we ever have before.
Most of the Jamaicans here are celebrating, happy to leave home behind. If only they knew.
And yet, despite the hatred and the sadness, there is so much humour in the story. There is also hope, and determination. Hortense will sew and train and qualify in Britain as the teacher she already was in Jamaica. Gilbert may study the law one day. There is even new life. Hortense, Gilbert, Michael and Queenie unite in trying to create a better future for baby Michael. There is at least a chance he will thrive in times to come. As for Queenie and Bernard, their lives are pretty much spent. They will come to feel a lot of pain and emptiness. I don’t think many of us care about them that much, but I’m sure Andrea Levy did.
This is a sad, bitter, cruel story, but also a funny, heart-warming one. A story that has room for love and opportunity. Possibilities, if not inevitabilities. I like to think this is essentially a story of hope. The hope is not always fulfilled, but there is at least some sense of triumph by the end. And yet we must be careful not to get carried away by the applause and the tributes directed towards the cast and the production team. There is so much more to be achieved in society beyond the timeframe of the novel. The challenge is enormous, and the journey continues.
© Eddie Hewitt 2019
All production photos (c) Brinkhoff Moegenburg, via the National Theatre
See the Connected Cultures feature: Small Island and Tonal Balance
The National Theatre: Small Island
Connected Cultures: Six Stories and an Essay by Andrea Levy