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  • Eddie Hewitt

Small Island - Tonal Balance

Updated: Sep 15, 2020

...and why Andrea Levy would have loved this production at The National.

Before going to see Small Island at the National I had seen mostly good reviews, some great ones, and a few saying the production was “tonally imbalanced”, especially in the role of Hortense. It took me a while to figure out exactly what this meant. Did this mean that Hortense was speaking in the wrong voice, or getting it wrong in some other way? A misdirected attitude, perhaps? I think we can dismiss that idea. I had wondered how Leah Harvey would fare in the role, remembering how Naomie Harris made the role her own in the BBC adaptation of the book. I am happy to report that Leah was equally sensational. Her "perchances" were simply delightful.

Hortense (Leah Harvey)

Perhaps the claim was rather that the adaptation at the National was slanted in favour of the stories of the other characters, and gave more stage time especially to the white characters. I suspect this may have been the main critique. The implication must be that the Jamaican, and especially the Jamaican female side of the story (a quarter of the shared story), was just not getting a chance. I also read accusations that the characterisation was just too comic, again for Hortense mostly.

Having now seen the play, I disagree. I think the director Rufus Norris and the adaptor Helen Edmundson got it spot on, in all aspects; script, story, share of the story and characterisation. I also accept that others see it differently. But still, I draw on the original story. A story told by four narrators, relaying experiences that are both individual and interlinked, in a combined history. Two black Jamaicans (Hortense and Gilbert), two white British (Queenie and Bernard). They all have a lot to tell, in tones that cannot always be pinned down in any one way.

Three of the four main characters. Bernard (Andrew Rothney) intruding in the tenants' room, Gilbert (Gershwyn Eustace Jnr) and Hortense) behind.

There were some scenes with the Jamaican leads which felt a bit short. They could have benefited from a bit more time and space. Memories play tricks with us but I got the impression at times that the timeline of certain events on stage was slightly distorted, but the novel is not strictly linear so that was not a problem. The overall connectivity of the drama, the stories, fitted well together. I would have like to have seen more of Hortense – for me she is the brightest star in the book. But there are four protagonists and they all deserve to stand out on stage. If anything, quite a lot of Bernard’s story, the section in Burma especially, was not included (and not missed).

Andrea Levy was always determined to stress the importance of shared history. This is first to make sure that Jamaican / black British history is brought to the fore, alongside the white British version of history. Small Island stresses the reality of shared history especially through the ugly, white, British hostile reactions to the Windrush generation, the generation of Levy’s parents. For me, the balance of the stories was just right. A respectful, dramatically powerful representation of the structure of the novel.

The Author, Andrea Levy

As for ‘too comic in tone’, I must point out that Levy was also quite mischievous and very amusing. Perhaps the comedy in the play did come mainly from the scenes with Hortense. Perhaps Hortense did not have as many serious lines as some in the audience would have wished. But there was such rich comic material to draw on here. The scene with the egg and chips is a clasic comedy scene. If anything, this was actually underplayed at the National. The broom cupboard episode – narrated, not performed, is another fine comic moment; cleverly conveyed, not turned into a farcical moment. Gilbert is teasing Hortense. This is part of the dynamic of their relationship. From haughtiness versus bewilderment, and barely tolerating each other, to increasing warmth, support and mutual respect. Learning together how to deal with a cold, callous white Britain. Eventually, finding love.

Gilbert and Hortense enjoying their replacement meal. Typically British fare.

So yes, there is plenty of mirth, and much of it involved Hortense. Bernard, in turn, is highly comic. Ridiculous. Pathetic. Laughable. But he is also nasty and racist. Pretending not to understand Gilbert, or worse, not even listening. The scenes may be funny on the surface but they are frequently disturbing as they highlight the insular, patronising Londoners, and deliberate, racist behaviour based on pretending not to understand. At times, the emotions generated were almost unbearable. There was so much sadness. But there was also hope and a new life, a new beginning, for Hortense and Gilbert to love and nurture, to introduce into – and at times protect from – society.

Hortense temporarily in the shadows, but she will not be kept down.

Small Island is full of warmth and cruelty, ambition and despair, hopes and dreams. So many strengths and frailties, in varying measures. Along with the characters, we react in different ways. Life can be hard, and yet we find a way to make it bearable, even though change must be made to happen, even where it seems impossible at times. For me, this production is genuinely multi-tonal, and well balanced. Our lives and cultures are interwoven and we depend on each other in society to be able to move forward together. Rufus Norris, Helen Edmundson, and the whole cast captured the essence of Small Island perfectly. And I’m convinced that Andrea Levy would have absolutely loved this dramatization of her finest work.

Small Island, the novel

© Eddie Hewitt 2019

All production photos (c) Brinkhoff Moegenburg, via the National Theatre

See the Connected Cultures review: Small Island


The National Theatre: Small Island

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