Just yesterday (21st May 2019), an investigation published by The Guardian indicated that since Brexit, 71% of British citizens from ethnic minorities have been victims of racism in the UK. With leaders and far right activists such as Nigel Farage and Tommy Robinson promoting a culture of intolerance towards immigrants, discriminatory behaviour is justified and excused. Perhaps reading these disturbing statistics merely hours before watching the National Theatre’s production of Small Island made the performance seem more politically charged.
Adapted from the late Andrea Levy’s novel, Small Island tells the story of a recovering post-war Britain struggling to rebuild its national identity in an ever-changing world. Helen Edmundson’s adaptation tackles spitefully intentional and clumsily unintentional racism, mental health and class divide. Hopes, dreams and expectations are raised and dashed as the characters each find themselves living a reality far from the idyll they have envisaged.
Director Rufus Norris illustrates the diaspora of the Jamaican Windrush passengers arriving in London with a full and diverse ensemble. The hypocrisy and senselessness of racism is portrayed effectively through use of shadows. Footage of iconic London buildings, HMS Windrush, English countryside and crashing waves are projected onto a large screen which the performers move behind. Only their silhouettes are visible: human form is identical regardless of colour, creed or class.
Running at three hours and twenty minutes, audience engagement never wavers. Despite the heavy subject matter, there is zest and humour counterbalancing issues of subjugation and injustice. Cultural differences are highlighted with sensitivity affection and much needed moments of wit are stippled throughout the piece. In particular, Leah Harvey excels as the prim and proper Hortense: Harvey creates a truly developed character arc, peppered with nuanced moments of comedy and pathos.
The systemic racism we see on stage is not easy watching; as one character observes, the white British populous know nothing of the cultures or customs of the countries in their empire. As a white British spectator, I felt an enormous amount of shame for the lazy ignorance and overt stigmatisation attached to immigrants in the post-war era and, disgracefully, in today’s society. In wake of the Windrush Scandal of 2018, the lack of acceptance portrayed onstage seems even more brutal. Small Island is a powerful piece of theatre highlighting reprehensible past treatments which have not been resolved. The positive impact that the post-war immigrants have on the UK is evident. The dehumanisation and degradation they face on the streets of Britain is as real in the past as it is in the present: as true onstage as it is outside the theatre walls. This is political theatre at its most thought provoking and challenging. It is not a production to be missed.
Small Island runs at the National Theatre until 10th August
Image © Brinkhoff-Moegenburg