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Review: MARYS SEACOLE, Donmar Warehouse

An ambitious examination across time and space of a forgotten hero.

Review: MARYS SEACOLE, Donmar Warehouse

Review: MARYS SEACOLE, Donmar Warehouse "Much-anticipated" is a phrase that is often recklessly bandied about in theatreland. West End debut of an American film star who is more used to staring at green screens than footlights? "Much-anticipated." A revival of a play that was once raved about by critics now dead, retired or residing in the blogosphere? "Much-anticipated." Anything featuring Benedict Cumberbatch? "Much-anticipated."

To those lucky enough to see Jackie Sibblies Drury's Fairview at the Young Vic when it played there in 2019, its follow-up is, indeed, much-anticipated. Here was a controversial Pulitzer-winning work which radically examined black experiences as seen through the filter of the white gaze. Throughout, it succeeded in making its point in a clever and heartfelt way and, in the final act, went one step further: white audience members were asked to leave their comfort zone and physically put themselves in the characters' shoes. Despite its edgy subject matter, it was a critical smash adored for its exciting and daring approach to theatre.

Scroll forward three years and Fairview's successor Marys Seacole has washed ashore at the Donmar after a pre-Covid run across the pond. It reunites the Fairview creative team, including director Nadia Latif and set designer Tom Scutt (Olivier nominated for the West End revival of Cabaret).

Ostensibly, it looks at medical misogynoir through the figure of Mary Seacole (there's a plural in the title for reasons discussed later). The 19th-century Jamaica-born Seacole is best known for using her own funds to travel to the Crimean War and set up a respite for sick and recovering officers called the British Hotel; she also brought with her a cadre of nurses to tend the dying and wounded on the battlefield.

Despite multiple requests, she received scant support from public funds or her contemporary Florence Nightingale either before or after arriving at the battleground; the Lady of the Lamp snidely remarked that "anyone who employs Mrs Seacole will introduce much kindness - also much drunkenness and improper conduct". Nowadays, a memorial statue to the unlikely war hero who many soldiers called "Mother" stands outside St Thomas's Hospital, just over the river from the Donmar.

Marys Seacole is as much a psychological biography as it is a physical one, with great pains taken to explore the tortured relationship between the mixed-race nurse and her Creole mother. The feeling of being respected as a worker but never loved as a daughter drove Seacole to relentlessly care for others both in her homeland and in the midst of war; in one emotional moment, we see her calling all the soldiers on the battlefield "her sons". Sibblies Drury takes this journey of pain and persistence as a fulcrum to examine the many roles women take in society, not least mothers, carers, nannies, teachers and nurses.

Like some kind of theatrical kaleidoscope, she delineates the societal expectations heaped on women and explores them every which way across time and space, from 19th-century Jamaica and Ukraine to a modern UK hospital and a near-future children's playground in the US. Mary Seacole's life is the thread we follow but we see her views and struggles reflected in the eyes and actions of Mamie, Miriam, May and Merry (Deja J. Bowens, Esther Smith, Olivia Williams and Susan Woolridge respectively), who represent different characters in each scene.

As Mary, Kayla Meikle anchors this 100-minute play superbly but her thick Jamaican accent and heavy use of patois can make comprehending her - and, hence, her situation, views and struggles - more than a mite difficult. Surtitles would have been a boon here unless Sibblies Drury is deliberately making a point here about how well we in the audience can truly understand the life and times of someone who lived thousands of miles away and two centuries ago. With Fairview in mind, though, this seems to be too slight and subtle a point for the playwright to be making.

Even when the language isn't an issue, the dramatic intent of individual scenes is often unclear other than adding more fuel to the apocalyptic ending and its punchy speech by Duppy Mary (Llewella Gideon). There are some powerful exclamations made by the characters ("They need us but they don't want us!") but the play's overall points are sometimes buried in overlong and underwritten exchanges.

While Latif's direction in Fairview was fluent, sharp and inspiring, here it is more clunky and pedestrian with even the more dramatic set-pieces during the Crimean War failing to engage or pull us into the grim environment. Scutt makes efficient use of the limited stage space but more could have been done to transport us into the different times and spaces that Marys Seacole inhabits.

In a sense, this is a play that benefits from its proximity to Fairview and also suffers from it. That play set the bar very high, not just for its creative team but for theatre as a whole. It showed that serious issues of race could be explored in a kinetic and non-traditional fashion. Marys Seacole continues that same thought process albeit without the same ingenuity and spark that went into its predecessor.

Marys Seacole continues at Donmar Warehouse until 4 June.

Read our interview with director Nadia Latif here.

Image: Marc Brenner

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