The National Theatre’s latest adaptation of Andrea Levy’s novel, Small Island, offers a powerful and poignant exploration of identity, home and belonging.
Adapted by Helen Edmundson and directed by Rufus Norris, Andrea Levy’s 2004 novel Small Island, which won, among others, the Orange Prize for Fiction and the Whitbread Book of the Year, is currently running at the National Theatre to critical acclaim. It depicts the intertwined stories of three individuals in both Jamaica and England from the beginning of the Second World War until 1948. One of the main characters, Hortense, is training to become a teacher in Jamaica and wants to ‘make something of herself’. Gilbert, on the other hand, who has come home to Jamaica after having joined the RAF during the war, longs to return to England to pursue his dream of studying Law at an English University. Queenie is eager to leave her parents’ farm in rural Lincolnshire and find love away from home. Circumstances will bring them all together in London towards the end of the 40s, unaware that their lives are more intricately connected than they believe. On stage, their overlapping stories are told calmly but dynamically by a cast that complements each other. This production provides an immersive exploration of the lives of those who make up the Windrush Generation and serves as a powerful exploration of the notions of home, belonging and family.
Small Island tackles an important part of British history and issues surrounding colourism, racism, and national identity, all conveyed by a brilliant company of 40. The play is a confident balance between Jamaica and England, not only as a setting but as origins for the hopes, fears, and longings of the protagonists. Scenes effortlessly change between these two countries, between past and present, and between the storylines of Hortense, Gilbert, and Queenie. What on paper could seem confusing and fragmented, proceeds as smoothly as the doors, benches, and armchairs that appear from below the stage. You do not need to see all three characters finally meeting each other to understand that the fates of Hortense, Gilbert, and Queenie, like the histories of England and Jamaica, are intriguingly and irreparably entwined.
Although the play lasts for about 3 hours, it never feels arduous or slow. On the contrary, it is dynamic and chequered, and in contrast to the novel, surprisingly funny at times. This is thanks to the actors who bring sincerity to scenes that make you chuckle at, for instance, Hortense’s naïveté and rigidity, Gilbert’s slight stumpiness and good-naturedness, and Queenie’s frankness and open-mindedness. The audience became visibly engaged in the happenings on stage, with individual viewers making their opinions on certain characters’ questionable, awkward, or wise decisions publicly known, much to the amusement of the remaining audience.
Despite these moments of comic relief, the play, like the novel, remains deeply moving, honest and poignant for our times. When the well-educated and mannered Hortense arrives in England expecting Gilbert to have found a nice place, one where she can ring the bell like a proper lady, but instead finds herself in a single room with only one basin for washing and a chamber pot under the bed, she is understandably outraged. All she expected from her new life in England, everything she was promised and had worked hard for, is denied her in a single instant. To add further insult to injury, everyone that she and Gilbert meets respond with resentment – with the exception of Queenie – even more so than that experienced by Gilbert when working for the RAF during the war. Better educated than the majority of white British people she encounters, with a more refined manner to boot, Hortense is doubly denied the welcome she deserves because of her attributes. Leah Harvey wonderfully captures Hortense’s development: from a young, love-struck girl who is eclipsed in her native Jamaica and naively sets off to England in the hope of a better future, married to a man she barely knows with a folder full of references and a trunk too heavy to carry, to one who struggles to cope with the unexpectedly cold reception and mounting prejudices of English people.
Writer Andrea Levy found inspiration for Small Island, her fourth novel, in her own family history: like Gilbert, her father left Jamaica for England on the MV Empire Windrush in June 1948, and her mother, like Hortense, followed soon afterwards. Both couples have to make do with a single room instead of a whole house, the men finding work at the post office and the women trying to find teaching jobs in London. Instead of encountering the golden future they were hoping for, Levy’s parents, like Hortense and Gilbert – like so many immigrants from the West Indies in the post-war era – were largely met with hostility and suspicion. Although the circumstances that the Windrush Generation found themselves in and experienced when arriving in England (and right up to the present day) are well-known today, seeing it played out on stage makes it all the more depressingly real. It brings the truth and pain of the past into contact with that of the present, underscoring what past, second and third generations of Black British citizens of Caribbean descent have endured and been subject to since. Small Island has the potential to become a modern classic in that it addresses and calls for the need to negotiate British history and its connections with the Caribbean as a whole, which in this stage production is emphasised by the use of historical video footage and photographs.
Helen Edmundson, whose previous works include the Olivier nominated Coram Boy, marvellously adapts the play from Levy’s a-chronological novel to make it more coherent and cohesive for a stage production. Foreshadowing, time lapses, and subtle hints lead to the audience always being one step ahead of the characters who, even in the end, cannot see how closely they are actually connected to one another. When Hortense and Queenie tell their life stories in the first part, all movements go hand-in-hand, everything clicks into place (quite literally due to the intricate stage design emphasising the interconnectedness of their stories) and you would not notice that the 500+ page-long novel has been reduced and reshuffled for the play. Levy’s novel is brilliantly written, but when Gilbert and others board the Empire Windrush by means of a gigantic banner and some carefully executed shadow play, the significance of their journey becomes even more evident and intimidating. Small Island not only exhibits an amazing script and cast, but wonderful production design that perfectly captures lively, buoyant life in Jamaica and contrasts it with a foggy, bleak existence in London. The atmospheric music and costumes, as well as the lighting, emphasise the contrast and emotions that are felt upon leaving one’s previous life and family behind, and being met by the unexpected, the unknown, the “home” away from home.
Small Island is a production you will not easily forget. If you only see one play this year, let it be this.
Small Island finishes its run on 22nd July 2019. To find out more about the play and to book tickets, click here. It will be broadcast live from the National Theatre to over 700 UK cinemas as well as worldwide on 27th June.