It felt like a treat to review a play at The Donmar Warehouse, a 251-seat theatre known for entertaining and inspiring, and which has won more than one hundred awards in their twenty-eight year history.
The prospect of Mary Seacole, a woman of great courage and invaluable nursing work, convinced me that the premise of this production was one not to be missed. Unfortunately, it was a complete anti-climax, as I discovered after no less than halfway through.
Jackie Sibblies Drury’s story of Mary Seacole was told through scenes that flitted between the past and present day, telling of her work during the Crimean War and her upbringing in her birthplace, Kingston, Jamaica.
The storyline was muddled and difficult to keep up with, and the points trying to be made were often lost in the disarray of the changing timeframes. There were scenes that made deliberate attempts to shock, but the effect was not felt. This was demonstrated in the sensorily-overloaded bombing scene during the Crimean war, which saw torsos and wreckage strewn across the stage: the flashing of lights and booming sounds were far too overwhelming, counteracting any points to be made.
A redeeming element was the strong all-female cast, particularly Kayla Meikle who played Mary Seacole. She was compelling as a woman who had struggled, and instead of leaving her bitter Meikle embodied all that was generous and gentle, remaining stalwart in her portrayal of a woman who deserved a voice, then and now.
The mothers featured in the play are depicted as lonely and isolated, and a sense of judgement is cast over them as their feelings are unacknowledged. They, like Mary, are voiceless and this gives a greater sense of some of the harsh realities Seacole would have had to face as a woman; particularly as a woman of colour.
There is a comical scene where trainee NHS nurses attend to victims, but after some minutes it becomes a scene of female hysteria and, as with much of the rest of the production, it descends into chaos.
In a play of one hour forty-five minutes with no interval, this chaos was unrelenting and didn’t allow any time for reflection, which can be particularly helpful to break up the intensity of a performance like this.
Mary Seacole was forgotten after her death for almost a century, but was later recognised for her accomplishments. For years her voice was silenced and, despite the effort to celebrate her as a female in history that has deserved nothing less, this production sadly did not do her the justice she deserved.
Written by: Jackie Sibblies Drury
Directed by: Nadia Latif
Design by: Tom Scutt
Lighting Design by: Jessica Hung Han Yun
Sound Design and Composed by: Xana
Marys Seacole plays at Donmar Warehouse until 4 June. Further information and bookings can be found here.