Olivier, National Theatre – until 10 August 2019
Here’s a phrase I’ve not had cause to write, say or think for a very long time indeed: I’ve seen a show at the National Theatre directed by its AD Rufus Norris which I absolutely loved. Not only that, it was in the Olivier. Something fantastic was in the Olivier. It seems too warm for hell to have frozen over, but I might check just in case.
Small Island is that show. Norris directs Helen Edmundson’s adaptation of Andrea Levy’s modern classic novel, telling the story of Jamaican immigrants coming to Britain during and after the Second World War. And my goodness the play itself is a wonderful thing. I was only vaguely aware of Levy’s original novel, which has now shot straight to the top of my to read list, but her story and her storytelling is absolutely stunning. I feel like I’m using this word a lot at the moment – perhaps a reflection of how little of this quality is currently available in real life – but the humanity of it is so beautiful.
There’s such heart and life in her characters and their stories that it’s genuinely impossible to not be emotionally invested in them. Even if you feel you have zero experience of immigration (and if you think this is the case, you’re almost certainly wrong by the way) you will identify with the stories that Small Island tells. Because, to badly paraphrase one of the show’s most powerful set piece speeches, essentially the immigrant story is universal: we all want a better life in the end, it’s just that some people travel further for it.
None of this is to say that the show is twee or rose tinted though. It makes clear the reasons for the Jamaican characters wanting to leave home, both positive and negative, and the rumbling social unrest as the independence movement begins to grow there. It makes clear the awfulness of the British Empire’s attitudes to those in its colonies, both in the Caribbean and India. It makes clear the horrid racism that people of colour faced in the UK when they arrived here, war service notwithstanding, and it is unflinching but not sensationalist in its honest portrayal of this. The ease with which the racist language is used is genuinely shocking, or at least it was to me.
It makes clear the particularly bad lots of women, of colour and not, at the time and the bonds of a sort of sisterhood that this made space for. It has so much to say about home and family and love, not all of it good or easy or pleasant. At various points it made me silently fuming, deeply embarrassed and painfully hopeful. It is brilliant writing – and brilliant adaptation for the stage too.
It is, of course, also horribly *horribly* timely. I don’t think I need to explain why, save to say that the Empire Windrush does make an appearance. And that the use of the racist language that I found so shocking and embarrassing is something that probably would have been even more so before the Brexit genie was freed from its bottle. I haven’t always agreed with Rufus Norris’ programming since he took the NT helm, especially for the Olivier, but putting this play on at this moment could not be a better decision.
His production is an absolute triumph too; a timely and necessary reminder of the levels of beauty he is able to reach as a director that have been sorely lacking in the work of his that I’ve seen of late (I’m still pissed about that fugly Macbeth). An epic story like this deserves an epic staging and that is exactly what Norris gives it. The sweep and the scope of it is cinematic, like one of the Old Hollywood blockbusters that one of the play’s heroines (a big yes to having more than one leading, complex, kick ass female characters), Queenie, so enjoys. I have never seen the Olivier’s acres of stage used better I don’t think. This production is that rarest of rare things: one that feels like it actually belongs in the Olivier.
I can’t say enough good things about Katrina Lindsay’s set design. It’s huge and epic and beautiful and brilliant and every other good word you can think of. Jon Driscoll’s projection design is perfect and so cleverly used. When it combines with Paul Anderson’s stunning (and stunningly effective) lighting to create the effect of members of the cast walking in and out of the projections in shadow it’s one of the production’s most visually arresting features. Benjamin Kwasi Burrell’s music, which is basically a score in the cinematic sense of the word, is the cherry on a rich (probably rum soaked) cake that beautifully integrates Caribbean and English influenced sounds whilst always providing the perfect amount of atmosphere. All in all, this production is an absolute masterpiece. And it’s surely no coincidence that I can’t remember the last time I was in such an engaged audience in the Olivier.
Finally, the Olivier-appropriate huge cast is a gift. Everyone in the mostly multiple part playing ensemble is brilliant but the central trio of Leah Harvey (Hortense), Aisling Loftus (Queenie) and Gershwyn Eustache Jr (Gilbert) are a class above. Harvey and Loftus are both feisty, determined and thoroughly inspirational as the two leading ladies, perfectly portraying their desires for their futures and their entirely different but also entirely the same experiences as women in a phallocentric (love that word) society. Loftus in particular has some very difficult scenes – no spoilers – with some serious emotional heavy lifting. She’s magnetic in them. Eustache (can we please take a minute to celebrate the best name in British theatre) is charisma in human form, all swagger and bravado which makes his treatment at the hands of his adopted countrymen and the suffering it causes him all the more painful to watch. I could have happily watched him for the entire three hours plus run time of the play and will definitely be keeping an eye out for whatever he chooses to do next.
Small Island is an absolute joy and an overdue, no reservations at all, win for Rufus Norris at the NT. There’s nothing else to say. Well except this: you must see it, immediately.
Small Island is in the Olivier at the NT until 10th August.
I sat in E41 in the circle for this one and paid £15 for the privilege. I would recommend sitting up high for this production to fully appreciate the stunning design.