It’s a testament to the importance of an institution like the National Theatre that it has something as spectacular as this production of ‘Small Island’ to pull out right now. Its adaptation of Andrea Levy’s epic novel about the Windrush Generation is a staggering achievement, made all the more poignant by Levy’s death from cancer aged 62 just a few months before her work was staged to huge acclaim in 2019. Now’s your chance to catch it as the next instalment of the National Theatre at Home free streaming season.
‘Small Island’ takes a handful of stories and artfully weaves them together to create a picture of the 1940s in the West Indies and the UK, as the two cultures eventually meet one another properly in a decrepit postwar London. We see the arrival of 1948’s Windrush Generation in Britain from all sides – one of the defining geniuses of Levy’s novel is its breadth and generosity of vision and insight. That’s not to say it’s rose-tinted. It really isn’t. But it crucially reminds us that WWII tore up lives across the world and patching them back together was always going to be messy.
Our review from last year praised Helen Edmundson’s adaptation for preserving the huge spirit of the book while managing its sprawling, multi-tentacled form. Rufus Norris’s direction also got a thumbs up: ‘Master of spectacle Norris really is in his element here. The aesthetic that he and his team have opted for is a sort of megabucks poor theatre: the hurricane is suggested by members of the gargantuan cast spinning school chairs around the stage; when Gilbert boards the Windrush, we see his silhouette stepping into archive footage of the vessel projected on a giant screen (there is great use of archives throughout Jon Driscoll’s projections).’
Race and identity are at the centre (and the rest) of ‘Small Island’, but a lot of its impact comes from the two central characters being women – the Jamaican Hortense and the English Queenie. ‘It is very much about historical racism (and not-so-historical racism, too). It is also about historical sexism: Aisling Loftus’s Queenie seems to fit well with the Jamaican characters because she too shares an optimistic outlook on the nature of the world that is not met by the reality of Britain in 1948. She must use men to survive.’
This superb production of ‘Small Island’ felt timely in 2019, in the wake of the Windrush Scandal and renewed calls for the men and women who came to the UK from the Caribbean in the 1940s to have their cultural achievements and enormous influence on what British national identity consists of properly recognised. A year later, amid another unscrupulous global catastrophe and world-spanning racial anger, it has more to tell us about who we are – both as individuals and collectively.
Oh, and it’s also ‘a ferociously entertaining three hours of theatre’.
‘Small Island’ is on the National Theatre at Home’s YouTube channel from 7pm BST tonight (Thu Jun 18) for free. It’s available for one week.
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