Monday, June 3, 2019

Small Island: The National Theatre Works the Room

Gershwyn Eustache Jr. and Leah Harvey in Small Island at London's National Theatre. (Photo: Brinkhoff/Mögenburg)

This review contains spoilers.
Small Island, on the Olivier stage at London’s National Theatre, clocks in at three hours and fifteen minutes and feels more like a miniseries than a play. (Indeed it has been a BBC miniseries, starring Naomie Harris, Ruth Wilson, David Oyelowo and Benedict Cumberbatch.) Adapted by Helen Edmundson from Andrea Levy’s multiple-award-winning 2004 novel about Jamaicans struggling to make lives for themselves in World War II and post-war London, it takes the entire first act – an hour and forty-five minutes – to set up the parallel between its two protagonists, one black and one white. The black heroine is Hortense (Leah Harvey), an obstinate, intractable Jamaican schoolteacher whose mother gave her up to be raised by foster parents in Kingston, where she believed the child would have a more rewarding life. Hortense is so desperate to get out of Jamaica – to London, where she assumes she can land a teaching job – that she steals Gilbert (Gershwyn Eustache Jr.), who fought with the British Armed Forces during the war, from her best friend. She offers to pay for his passage to London on the Empire Windrush (which carried Levy’s own parents from Jamaica in 1948) on condition that he marry her and send for her once he’s established himself. The white heroine is Queenie (Aisling Loftus), who comes to London from the country in the late thirties to live with her aunt and work in her news-agent’s shop, marries the sexually repressed Bernard Bligh (Andrew Rothney) and moves in with him and his father Arthur (David Fielder), who emerged from the First World War so shell-shocked that he stopped speaking. When war breaks out and Bernard joins up, Queenie moves back to her parents’ farm in Lincolnshire and waits for her husband to return, but the army sends him straight to India in 1945 on a peacekeeping mission, where he disappears mysteriously. To keep solvent she opens her home to military boarders, including, at different times, Gilbert and Hortense’s cousin Michael (CJ Beckford), the earliest object of her romantic attention, with whom Queenie has a love affair that awakens her both sexually and emotionally. When Gilbert returns to England on Hortense’s dime in 1948, he moves into the working-class London area where Queenie has opened a boardinghouse, and that’s the cramped, seedy and largely xenophobic neighborhood to which he welcomes Hortense.

The story is about racial tensions experienced by émigré West Indians in London and about the coming of age of these two women, but there’s so much material, especially in the first act, and Edmundson presents it in such a slack dramatic structure, that it isn’t until act two that you figure out what the hell the play is about. Given that Queenie’s character arc doesn’t intersect with the racial theme until quite late in the narrative, it would be a challenge for any playwright to find a way to shape it, but Edmundson certainly flubs it. And surely there are some scenes she didn’t need to include at all – like the early ones involving the white American schoolteacher (Amy Forrest) whom Hortense assists before she gets her teaching certification, a voluptuous hysteric who sleeps with Michael and whose husband crashes his car in the earthquake that also finishes off Michael’s family.

There’s a deeper problem. I haven’t read the novel, but in the play – perhaps partly as a result of the fact that Edmundson is dealing with miles of plot – the characters are simplified and sometimes used as melodramatic devices or mouthpieces, and the director, Rufus Norris (in his third season as the artistic director of the National), collaborates fully in the melodramatizing. The most flagrant example is the way Arthur, Queenie’s father-in-law, is employed as a sacrificial puppy dog. He’s a handful because he requires so much care, but Queenie grows fond of him when Bernard leaves him in her care while he’s deployed, first in Burma and then in India, and his terror when the bombs start to hit London motivate her to get him away to the quiet countryside. He dies in a race brawl at a movie theatre when Gilbert takes him and Queenie out for a treat and some locals object to him and other Jamaican soldiers sitting up front with the white patrons; a member of the home guard shoots him by accident. The last thing we see him do before this scene is present a bouquet of flowers to Queenie: the audience oohs and aahs as if they were watching an animal trained to perform a particularly endearing trick. Norris stages the fatal shooting right in front of the movie screen in, with Arthur’s arched body bathed in a special (Paul Anderson designed the effective lighting), and as if that weren’t enough, just before he dies he speaks the only word we’ve ever heard from him: Queenie’s name. The scene is shameless.

That’s the most outrageous sequence but it’s part of a pattern. The big revelations are presented with so much bathos and soap-opera underlining that you can’t believe in them, and I’d say that’s true for the comedy too. When Hortense gets to London she’s appalled by the environment Gilbert expects her to adapt to, and since she has as little experience being a wife as he does being a husband their first months together are disastrous. Edmundson and Norris mine some humor out of their spats, but it’s rigged too. Because the toilet is on another floor of the boardinghouse, Gilbert keeps a chamber pot under the bed, and Hortense spills some of his urine. She gets a laugh, naturally, but the play has emphasized Gilbert’s efforts to make this tiny, constrained room as comfortable as he can for her arrival, so what are the chances it wouldn’t have occurred to him to get rid of the remains in the chamber pot? The first time she cooks for him she gives him an English delicacy he’s partial to and she’s unused to, fish and chips (which she’s never tasted), but she doesn’t fry the chips. I’d buy that she’s a terrible cook, but wouldn’t an intelligent woman who’d obtained a teaching certificate be able to figure out that you don’t serve potatoes raw?

The play also registers as melodrama whenever the characters are softened to ensure that the audience won’t waver in their sympathy. Hortense gets Gilbert to break up with her friend Celia (Shiloh Coke) by telling him about her crazy mother who wanders the streets of Kingston and whom Celia could never leave behind to emigrate to England with him. It’s an act of selfishness and disloyalty, but it’s not a lie – which would be more interesting and more convincing. When Bernard finally makes it back from India, he’s horrified to find black people boarding in the house. There’s no reason to imagine that a middle-class Brit in 1948 wouldn’t respond with that sort of reflex racism, as Queenie’s neighbors do, but Edmundson makes sure that we understand that it’s his experiences in India that have made him this way. When Queenie gives birth to Michael’s baby, he’s revolted by the knowledge that she slept with a black man, yet he’s immediately drawn to the child and objects strenuously when she begs Hortense and Gilbert to adopt him so he won’t grow up a pariah. Small Island doesn’t omit the preachy side of old-fashioned nineteenth-century melodrama either: near the end Gilbert gets to deliver a tirade against racism that could have been written for schoolchildren. By the time the evening wraps up, five or ten minutes later, the audience has been primed to leap to its feet. I know we’re living in a time when we’re encouraged to respond to the cultural cues in plays and movies with cheers and applause as if we were rooting for the home team, but this production practically uses an electric prod on us.

Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting Style; No Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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