Small Island at the National Theatre
Andrea Levy’s intimate story of intertwined lives returns in this spectacular revival at the National Theatre. Directed by Rufus Norris and adapted for stage by Helen Edmundson, Small Island sweeps up the audience with its powerfully vivid stagecraft and glorious lead performances.
In mid-1940s Jamaica, Hortense (Leonie Elliott) dreams of leaving for greater prospects in England. Likewise, Gilbert (Leemore Marrett Jr) joins the war effort in what he imagines is his first step towards becoming a lawyer. In the “Mother Country” itself, Lincolnshire-born Queenie (Mirren Mack) escapes from rural drudgery to luxurious London. As the weight of loss, conflict and prejudice take its toll, their lives unexpectedly intermingle, with stormy consequences for all.
The evolving, parallel narratives of Levy’s novel are well-structured in Edmundson’s adaptation, even if Queenie’s story becomes too central in the first act. Instead, it is Norris and Coral Messam’s direction that creates the revolving marvel, staged vibrantly on Katrina Lindsay’s expansive set. Backdropped by an encompassing panorama, Jon Driscoll’s projections – an atmospheric blend of beautiful illustrated landscapes, shifting natural elements and archival footage – seamlessly conduct the audience across place and history. With the leads’ monologues often taking place downstage centre, it gives the impression that these interpersonal and introspective stories play out within the broader canvas of a shifting world.
The trio are uniformly magnificent in delivering the nuance in characters whose conflicts not only emerge from public prejudices, but also private self-deceptions. Elliott transforms from bright-eyed dreamer, all openness and vigour, to hurt and brittle, as her voice and physicality subtly become sharp and closed. Mack is also a delight, offering wit and grit in equal measure. Fortunately, they aren’t upstaged by Marrett Jr as he gives Gilbert utter charm, intelligence and dignity, in spite of what he faces in post-war Britain. Uncomfortable yet unflinching depictions of overt racism perforate the production as much as mischievous humour serves to punctuate certain scenes.
In the wake of recent protests against modern conditions of prejudice and acknowledging historical legacies of colonialism in the UK (as was the case with the exposure of the “hostile environment” scandal in 2017 that preceded the original production), this superb revival comes as a timely reminder of the profound intimacy that has formed the histories and identities of England, Jamaica and the Caribbean. Small Island is a harmony of epic scope and complex details, where the dramatically engaging intricacies are writ large, despite its absorbing visual and contextual scale.
Small Island is at the National Theatre from 15th March until 30th April 2022. For further information or to book visit the theatre’s website here.