Once on This Island at Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre
As a play in which nature has a leading role – literally, as water and earth are personified as gods – it is only fitting that Once on This Island be performed at Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre. In this breathtaking venue, the vibrancy of the performers is complemented by the fullness of their surroundings. Characters “climb trees” amongst living trees and “wander through jungles” amidst a real jungle of sorts.
Described as a “Caribbean reimagining of The Little Mermaid“, the musical reimagined by Ola Ince is set in colonial Haiti and revolves around a semi-mythical figure in the island’s history. The audience and several of the current-day inhabitants hear the tale of Ti Moune – an orphan girl who lived there years earlier – contemporaneously.
Just as in Hans Christian Andersen’s classic tale, Once on This Island is a also a kind of love story between two figures coming from “different worlds”. But in this adaptation, the division is less physical (one living in the sea and the other on the land) than hierarchical. The effects of colonial rule linger, separating the island into the world of “peasants” (those of pure African descent) and “grand hommes” (mixed-race descendants of the French).
The play touches on pressing contemporary issues, as internalised racism sees the mixed-race characters treating the African-descended “peasants” with contempt and derision. As one character points out, “They hate us because we remind them of their own blackness.” Ti Moune’s performance for the wealthy grand hommes also speaks to issues of Orientalism and the fetishisation of women of colour.
Despite its serious subject matter, Once on This Island remains a joy to watch for several reasons: the energy and vigour with which the actors perform, the lively and joyful musical score, the astounding vocal capacities of the cast, the perfectly executed choreography, and the colourful costumes (Mother Nature has flowers literally spiking out from every square inch of her head).
Gabrielle Brooks shines as Ti Moune, bringing an endearing naivety and a steadfast strength to the character, as well as outstandingly strong vocals. One cannot mention her voice without also mentioning Anelisa Lamola, who plays Asaka, or Mother Earth. Upon hearing her sing, the audience has no trouble believing that she belongs in some capacity to the divine.
Overall, the experience of seeing Once On This Island at Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre is highly recommended, especially as the summer months approach and the days begin getting warmer. While it may be preferable to physically transport viewers to the sunny Caribbean, seeing this performance provides a close second best.
Once on This Island is at Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre from 10th May until 10th June 2023. For further information or to book visit the theatre’s website here.