by Carol Rocamora
The choice of Small Island in the current crop of NT Live-streaming productions couldn’t be more timely and more meaningful. This sweeping epic, dramatizing the wave of Jamaican immigrants arriving on England’s shores in 1948 and the racism they encounter, is a testimony that black lives do indeed matter to the artists and audiences of the Royal National Theatre, where this magnificent production premiered in the spring of 2019.
Small Island tells the stories of four young characters – three native Jamaicans and one white Englishwomen, each of whom journeys to London in the 1940s to seek a better life. Hortense (Leah Harvey) dreams of escaping rural Jamaica for a “golden life” in England, where she can be a teacher. Gilbert (Gershwyn Eustach Jnr) dreams of journeying to London to study law. Michael (CJ Beckford) leaves Jamaica to join the RAF for the “romance” of fighting a war on the European continent. Meanwhile, Queenie (Aisling Loftus), daughter of a British pig farmer, longs to escape her Lincolnshire roots for what she imagines will be an exciting London life.
It’s the way in which these characters connect that constitutes the power of the story, as they are swept up in the war’s aftermath. Fate brings them together in the house that Queenie and her husband Bernard (Andrew Rothney) have bought in London’s Earl’s Court district, where their lives intertwine and undergo momentous change.
This is a story about the double traumas of war and racism, and the monumental impact both have on the lives of these characters. The tiny community of London’s Earl’s Court becomes a microcosm of cruel prejudice against black immigrants in England, post World War II. In one traumatic scene, Gilbert is forced to sit in the rear of a neighborhood movie house. Supported by Queenie, he refuses, and a violent riot breaks out. Meanwhile, Hortense and Gilbert are cruelly persecuted for the color of their skin by the white lodgers in Queenie’s house. Queenie’s husband Bernard, who returns from the war, becomes the chief offender. In one of the play’s powerful moments, Gilbert confronts Bernard, saying: “You know what your trouble is, man? Your white skin… We fought a war to make a better world, and you still think I am worthless? We want the same things: work, self-respect, and love…”
Adapting Andrea Levy’s historical novel is a daunting challenge, and Helen Edmundson succeeds admirably. Small Island is brought to vibrant stage life by Rufus Norris, masterfully directing a massive cast of 40 on the Olivier’s turnstile stage, where the story flows from Kingston to Lincolnshire to London and back to Jamaica again. On the huge upstage screen, images flash of West Indies hurricanes and tempest-tossed ocean crossings, while the ensemble sings and dances during scene changes. The stagecraft is superb, with ingenious set and costumes by Katrina Lindsay, lighting by Paul Anderson, projection design by Jon Driscoll, movement choreographed by Coral Messam, and musical composition by Benjamin Kwasi Burrell. It’s a spectacle of storytelling at its finest, brilliantly and wonderfully staged.
The performances are memorable, featuring Leah Harvey’s intense Hortense, Gershwyn Eustache Jnr’s endearing Gilbert and CJ Beckford’s dashing Michael. Aisling Loftus offers a Queenie with true grit, and Andrew Rothney manages to find moments of vulnerability and humanity in his role as the limited, bigoted Bernard.
In the end, it may have been a journey from one small island to another, but the results are as huge as that hurricane projected on the upstage screen. “This is not what I was expecting in England,” says Hortense of the “golden life” she dreamed of in an imagined land of opportunity, where instead she found cruel, systemic racism. What this play’s unexpected – and transforming – ending teaches us, however, is that things can indeed change. As Gilbert says: “We can work together… We must.”
Small Island, adapted by Helen Edmundson, based on Andrea Levy’s novel, directed by Rufus Norris in the Olivier of the Royal National Theatre, on NT Live, streaming now through June 24.