Jackie Sibblies Drury’s ‘Fairview’ was the boldest London premiere of 2019, a wildly inventive race relations satire that culminated in all the white audience members being asked to come up on stage and be stared at by the non-white punters.
So a reunion for Drury, director Nadia Latif and designer Tom Scutt for the UK premiere of Drury’s ‘Marys Seacole’ is a pretty exciting prospect. As it happens, ‘Marys Seacole’ is an altogether different affair, which retains the extreme willingness to be awkward that ‘Fairview’ had without quite managing to channel it into the same sort of thrilling conclusion.
That’s not to be too hard on it: for much of its length ‘Marys Seacole’ is very good indeed. It naturally concerns Mary Seacole, the Scottish-Jamaican nurse who treated British soldiers during the Crimean War and has gone on to be one of the most famous Black Victorians. When we first meet Kayla Meikle’s Seacole she seems exactly how you’d expect: soliloquising expansively to us – I think in direct quotation from her 1857 autobiography – about how grand the adventures she’s about to share with us were, talking about her childhood on Jamaica and the ‘good Scotch blood’ flowing in her veins from her white soldier father.
Then, she’s cut off mid-flow when her elderly mother (Llewella Gideon) inexplicably turns up, and pops out a couple of AirPods for them to shove in their ears. Scutt’s set – a big green cloth wall with pockets, like surgical scrubs – lifts to reveal another, similar wall, with a startlingly different scene in front of it: a trio of white women in a modern hospital, with an old, probably demented lady (Susan Wooldridge) in a bed, attended by her tired, on-edge daughter (Olivia Williams) and grumpy, uncomfortable granddaughter (Esther Smith). Mary is now a modern nurse: after the old woman shits herself and her family leave in mortification, Mary and her young colleague Mamie (Déja J Bowens) clean her up and have a weary chat about life and men. The narrative starts to bounce around madly – frequently returning to Mary’s ‘true’ timeline, as she heads inexorably to Crimea, and Williams’s condescending Florence Nightingale. But also hopping back into the present: in another memorable scene, Mary and Mamie are exhausted nannies in the US, who stonewall an annoying but clearly desperately lonely young white mother.
I think – and I could be way off the mark here – that Drury is contrasting Seacole’s peppy authorship of her own story with equivalent figures who’ve had no such luxury. Clearly the contemporary Marys didn’t head out to a war zone, but they are offering their care, to a largely white clientele, who they take a quasi-parental approach towards. I think Drury is playing with ideas of authorship and identity and who gets to become immortal; I don’t think she is making a particularly pointed statement on Seacole the historical figure.
For its first two thirds or so Latif’s production has a cunning deadpan playfulness to it, with brilliant performances – notably from Meikle as the shapeshifting Marys, but with excellent comic support from Williams and Smith in particular – keeping you riveted even as the mind tries to join the dots between the changing scenes.
But when ‘Marys Seacole’ changed gear for a big finish I thought it lost something. The show’s po-faced façade cracks and everything falls into chaos, all the different settings of the play collapsing into a vortex centring on the Crimean War and some typically dazzling Tom Scutt surprises.
The ‘real’ Mary’s carefully constructed reality falls apart as she attempts to continue her story, but is confounded by the collapsing in of the play’s narrative. But to me it just felt like… a load of cool theatrey stuff happening, in a way that didn’t obviously seem to make a clear point. And honestly, nobody loves cool theatrey stuff more than I do, but while I could hazard a guess at what it all meant (Mary hitting the limits of her own self-constructed existence?) it all feels messy and diffuse, a string of familiar avant-garde parlour tricks in lieu of the sort of virtuosic ending ‘Fairview’ had.
Nonetheless, it does nothing to detract from the fact Drury is one of the most fascinating US playwrights out there. Even her failures would probably have more ideas than most other playwrights’ successes, and ‘Marys Seacole’ is a long way from a failure.