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Small Island


Review of National Theatre Broadcast

Reviewed by James Karas

Britain’s National Theatre has a penchant for producing plays on a grand scale, including adopting novels for the stage. It has the wherewithal to do it including the large stage of the Olivier theatre, an immense talent pool and a huge government-supported budget.

Last year it produced Small Island, a play based on Helen Edmundson’s novel adapted for the stage by Andrea Levy. A filmed version of the production is being streamed by the National Theatre to entertain us and maintain our sanity during the lockdown of civilization due to the pandemic.

The small island of the title refers to Jamaica, but it applies just as much to Britain. It tells intertwined stories about Jamaicans and English people from before World War II to 1948. It deals with the lives and aspirations of Jamaicans who consider themselves British (and are legally so) and the English who are racist and unwelcoming.

The play opens with the story of Hortense (Leah Harvey), a teaching assistant brought up by religious and prim relatives in 1930’s Jamaica. Her swaggering husband Gilbert (Gershwyn Eustache Jr) served in the Royal Air Force during the war and feels he should be entitled to more including becoming a lawyer. From Jamaica, he imagines England as the promised land. Hortense finances his trip to England in 1948 and makes him marry her. The promised land has poverty, racism and ugliness. He ends up as a postal worker barely eking out a living.

The other strand of the plot is Queenie (Aisling Loftus), a blonde from Lincolnshire. She meets Hortense’s cousin Michael (C.J. Beckford) and falls in love with him. She rents a squalid room to Gilbert. She is decent in contrast to her racist husband Bernard (Andrew Rothney) who turns up later.

The story is told in broad, sometimes leisurely, strokes. Designer Katrina Lindsay gives us brooding skies, flashes of hurricanes and starry skies. The scene changes are done efficiently with minimal uses of furniture and props. Scenes in England and Jamaica take place simultaneously at times. Very impressive set designs.

At one point the stage is dominated by the Empire Windrush, the now legendary ship that brought workers from the Caribbean to England to fill the labour gap in 1948. They were considered British citizens and required no papers.

“Show me the rest” asks Hortense of Gilbert when she arrives in England and she enters his one room. She is well-dressed and classy. Gilbert has a single, drab room which is as far from the promised land as you can get. It is a moving moment, a meeting with reality and the shock of recognition – one small room, single bed, no kitchen, no private bathroom, just a pot under the bed. “What is a darkie?” asks Hortense after she is called that on the street. Worse is to follow. Racism, insults, humiliations that would crush the strongest soul.

Rufus Norris directs meticulously and splendidly this large tale and the acting and is superb.

In the end Small Island tells a sweeping and deeply moving story about humanity, decency and the degenerative disease of racism. The latter has always been present but its recent and most vicious outbreak in the United Sates has made the play even more relevant if that is possible. It is 1948 and if the play ends on a guarded optimistic note it is more because hope springs eternal than in any real progress over the past three quarters of a century.

Small Island opened originally on May 1, 2019 on the Olivier stage of the National Theatre in London. A video recording was streamed on YouTube until June 25, 2020.

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