The Donmar’s last production dealt with the causes and consequences of male violence, the rhetoric and celebrated gung-ho spirit that takes men to war – legitimate or otherwise – charismatic leadership and the destruction of the male body. Henry V is a play filled with ambiguity, men die on the battlefield, they die in between, they are soldiers, they are civilians, they are noblemen and paupers, prisoners, spies and thieves. And Henry may walk away with another crown and a bargain princess with whom to start a dynasty, but someone has to pick up the pieces, to care for the wounded and dying when the King’s glory leaves them with shattered limbs, infections and survivor’s guilt. A biographical drama about Mary Seacole seems like a fitting follow-up.
Jackie Sibblies Drury’s new play Marys Seacole is an entirely female affair, no male characters are present, implied or even speak, only the time-travelling idea of Mary, her ghostly mother, Mary’s daughter and another tri-generational white family that she helps in a twenty-first century hospital setting. And while Sibblies Drury creates an overarching structure in which the story of the original Mary is played out from her early days in Kingston to the conflict zone of Crimea, the deliberate ‘s’ to pluralise the protagonist takes a long lens perspective on the role of female carers across two centuries and the gendered biological structures that continue to constrain women.
But Marys Seacole is a tough watch, an abstract style and disjointed scenes make it difficult to invest in what are archetypes rather than characters performing in what often feels like a chaotic assemblage of disconnected activities. It opens with Mary introducing her story, emphasising her determination and success as a woman who escaped conventionality to establish her own business and defied military and nursing authorities by arriving close to the battlefield with her team. Across the 1 hour and 45-minute running time, these elements are dramatised and distributed through the show like a backbone, (largely) retaining their period drama aesthetic to complete her physical and character journey from her homeland to a wider acceptance abroad.
From this, Sibblies Drury hangs another more nebulous dramatic device, using snippets drawn from scenarios involving versions of Mary and her daughter in different contemporary times and places. First we see her providing palliative care to a disorientated elderly woman in what we assume is an NHS hospital or facility and being chastised by the woman’s middle-aged daughter and granddaughter. Later, she sits on a park bench in the USA where mothers with babies in prams stop momentarily, ignoring Mary while one conducts brash phone conversations with a pharmacist and friend, while another complains about her loneliness. In a final scenario, Mary is running a trauma drill for new nurses, trying to heard a group of actors into performing their various roles in the aftermath of a terrorist incident.
They are connected by the cast performing similar character types and by the themes of motherhood and caregiving. There are also dialogue links between these situations with particular phrases uttered in earlier scenes returning later as individuals demand care, compassion or understanding, building to a frenzy of experience as Mary’s time in the Crimea becomes somehow bound-up with all of the people she has met and been throughout the play. And as the walls of time give way, allowing these shadows to bleed into her era and pick through the rubble, they overwhelm her with their demands for help.
And through this, Sibblies Drury weaves a broken connection with Mary’s ghostly mother, a lurking, spiritual presence that is always so strong in Carribean identity, who silently moves through the action, perhaps a yardstick for Mary to test her achievements against or a reminder that however far she travels she remains a Kingston woman. A lengthy monologue from this maternal ghost in the final scene speaks to these ideas, something of the shame Mary felt or disconnection from a parent who sent her away to care for a local white woman, but simultaneously reminding our heroine and all the Marys like her that their nursing efforts are in vain. There are nods to the government’s Windrush generation deportation plans to insist they will never be truly accepted and certainly never thanked for their work in the current NHS or contribution to wider social development in the last 70-years.
Sibblies Drury is telling an individual and a universal story at the same time, and there are powerful statements interwoven here, but together the seeming randomness of these various scenarios puzzles more than they explain or converge. The ideas are clear and the performative structures Sibblies Drury employs to tease out these concepts are certainly arresting, yet their overall meaning feels hazy. They are not quite straightforwardly dramatic yet also not impressionistic or representative enough to be either personally or politically pointed. The result is a piece that feels quite consciously stagey, keeping the audience on the outside of the drama and the emotive concerns it tries to address.
It is possible to see the influence of Carly Churchill and Sarah Kane in Sibblies Drury’s play, the combination of abrupt, anti-realist settings, the compression of time and historical figures into a single space as well as the interest in gender roles, motherhood and even the anthological style link to these two powerhouse political writers. Yet Marys Seacole doesn’t find quite enough strength in its connections, the joins between the various situations not yet strong enough to either grab the audience or push them to a place of discomfort where new thinking is possible. Instead, it feels as though most of the pieces are there but they just don’t fit together.
In staging Marys Seacole, Nadia Latif implies a simple but clinical medical field tent in a drab scrubs-green that sits somewhere between khaki and mint. Designed by Tom Scutt, there are two layers to the stage, front and back, divided by a strip of curtain with large Velcro pockets that double as storage rooms and sanitation facilities. Props are minimal which allows the story to travel relatively easily though time but there is no particular purity about period setting so anachronistic clothing or items (such as a nineteenth-century woman in trainers) appear throughout, although whether that is a deliberate statement to reinforce the fluidity of eras or a practical shortcut for costume changes is unclear.
There is however a powerful use of costume early on as the Victorian Mary delivering her opening biographical monologue is disrobed piecemeal by her daughter, removing the restrictive bodice and full skirt to reveal a modern nurses uniform. As a piece of identity performance, it is a fascinating moment, smartly easing our way into the next scene while simultaneously giving the audience a visual reference point for the core themes of Marys Seacole, as the narrative moves through and applies across time. And one of the production’s biggest successes is the way in which Scutt has represented changes in practice, dress and the management of conflict medicine through the design choices and reveals.
A contemporary hospital bed becomes an important and ingenious symbol of the Marys caregiving status. Initially used in the family scene in its original form, the bed transforms into a flat table with bench seating for Mary’s Kingston hotel and, later, into a park bench for the American moms encounter. Yet, there is inconsistency in how props are changed or moved within the production, sometimes actors bringing on their own items in relevant costume while the bed is repositioned and reformed by very visible stage managers in jarring modern black outfits and headsets, a necessity perhaps but it further breaks the illusion of the play and, like the undecided degree of abstract in the piece itself, it’s not clear what effect Latif is aiming for. There isn’t quite enough of this alienation technique to feel deliberate and if it isn’t then it just makes it even harder to maintain the spell during scene changes.
The production builds to a final confrontational scene that also tries to be symbolic and realistic at the same time. Finally, at the culmination of Mary’s story, there is some comedy in the brusque exchanges with a seemingly heartless and condescendingly competitive Florence Nightingale, but the men they tend are obvious dummies scattered chaotically around the stage, their torsos dressed in military jackets, trailing crepe paper streamers suggesting intestinal and other matter. Into this interaction between real people comes the people and phrases from other eras, holding plastic baby dolls – absurdist theatre is nothing without plastic baby dolls – and rifling through the debris. Visually, it’s a solid representation of the kind of battlefield carnage that those like Henry V would have caused but it has none of the visceral impact of Max Webster’s previous production, despite using some of the same soil. What we get instead, as in other parts of Marys Seacole, is powerful stage pictures but little translation of their meaning.
The performances are very good with a small ensemble cast of just six performers led by Kayla Meikle as the Marys. She is commanding from the first, delivering a rousing insistence of her worth, certain of her agency and importance, refusing to listen to the objections of others and pursuing her own course. Meikle explores some of the consequences of that determination in the final scene, responding to the maternal ghost’s warning of incipient racism, disinterest and betrayal, allowing her characterisation to crumble as the demanding world claws at her.
Meikle is supported by Llewella Gideon as that spirit who also delivers an final intense speech with bitterness and resignation, making the most of her only chance to speak. Olivia Williams is best as a haughty Florence Nightingale but is also given a harassed mother and simpering tourist in Kingston while Deja J. Bowens, Esther Smith and Susan Woolridge complete the cast as a series of mother and daughter figures at different stages of life, in various times and countries. They do a lot with a small ensemble, changing scenes rapidly to keep this relatively short show moving quickly even if very little of it makes sense.
Like the award-winning Fairview before it (staged at the Young Vic), Marys Seacole will certainly divide audiences with its sprawling approach and indecisive tone. It is certainly interesting to see a new play that tries to place a historical figure in a broader context of caregiving and racial injustice, particularly one devised and presented by a predominantly female creative team. But although Sibblies Drury’s play has lots of things to say and some interesting ways to say them, it can’t quite decide what it wants to be, leaving the audience equally baffled.
Marys Seacole is at the Donmar Warehouse until 4 June with tickets from £10. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog