Small Island, National Theatre

I read Andrea Levy’s seminal Windrush epic, Small Island, some time ago. I loved it. It stuck with me for some time afterwards. It perfectly captured the ‘longing’ part of belonging which is so integral to post-colonial identity when your roots originate outside Mother Britain herself.

I don’t know how helpful my vague memories of the plot were to my enjoyment of the National’s production – I spent probably too much time trying to second guess what had been changed from the book, even though on one level I knew it didn’t really matter and I should focus on what was being presented as a Thing in and of itself. On that level, the production was great: it felt epic, moving, important. I loved that the audience reflected the diversity of the cast and of modern Britain. The performances were good across the board, with excellent support from the large ensemble cast and (unsurprisingly, given that it’s been running for some time) the whole piece felt honed and polished. The design of the set was great. I’m often a bit wary of projections – I think there’s a risk of being too clever or gimmicky (yes, I’m looking at you, RSC Tempest) or kind of gratuitous (which is pretty much also my feeling re: films shot in 3D tbh) but they worked really well here. And, of course, the production had the Olivier’s cool revolve to work with, and did so with panache.

The loss of Bernard’s story arc wasn’t an issue, I don’t think; I do wonder if the balance between Hortense and Queenie’s stories was quite right. Perhaps not so much in content, but I did feel that perhaps the writer was more comfortable with Queenie’s “voice”, since beyond (and to an extent even within) the opening scenes most of Hortense’s involvement was sort of abstract, or slightly at a remove; there was perhaps less a sense of her as a fully autonomous character. That’s wholly in terms of the writing, though; the actress did a very fine job with the material she was given. I just felt that she was possibly a little short-changed. It might also be that Hortense (even in the book) is a complicated person; she spends a lot of time trying to define herself by others’ yardsticks, and that sort of thing is harder to portray without the benefit of pov narrative.

There was a lot of warmth and humour and pathos which played really strongly against the tenser, more aggressive interactions. I also really liked the sense that the production harnessed the energy the audience gave in terms of our modern reactions to the vintage racism on display – both the overt elements, such as Gilbert’s harassment by the rail workers and GIs, and the more ‘everyday’ transgressions and misunderstandings by otherwise well-meaning people like Queenie. It posed a challenge to us all: how far have we come? Yes, the attitudes seem dated. But some of those incidents could also be contemporary. Are we really more tolerant, or is it a veneer? How many of us were gasping at the anachronism, and how many in recognition?

But ultimately, I think the important thing was that the play evoked the same ache in me as did the book. The claustrophobia of life on one small island, and on another, the two divided by a common history. The sympathy with the frustrations of the characters – all of them looking, in their own way, to break out of the constraints placed on them by the expectations and prejudices of others. All of them flawed, and often struggling to live up to their own self-imposed standards, too.

It also hit home how much  Small Island is essentially a story of unrequited love: between various characters, at different points in time; between parents and children; and, perhaps most of all, between the Mother Country and her daughters. Relationships are tricky, asymmetrical ones all the more so. I wonder how far our Small Island has really come – whether we’ve developed the emotional intelligence to have meaningful relationships with others or whether, like Bernard, we remain awkward and insular and unable to fundamentally connect.

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