What is a white Briton doing writing a Barbadian family drama? On the one hand, well, of course why shouldn’t he, but artistic colonialism is a hot topic. If the Bush’s artistic director Madani Younis wants to make the theatre’s output more accurately reflect the community in which it is situated, then is it a constructive step in that direction to stage the pronouncements of a middle-aged white man about a community thousands of miles away?
Yes, I think it is. In the first place, Robin Soans’s principal work as a playwright has been in making verbatim work, getting as far as possible out of the way of his subjects’ words, and I suspect a similarly detailed research process may have gone into the writing of the Gillard family here. Second, the flavour of their dysfunctionality is a fairly universal one, within other social groupings as well as families.
The Gillards are a devout clan: father Eli is not simply churchgoing, but church-founding. Of his three sons, one has been excommunicated for the heresy of marrying a divorcee and another for the sin that no one dare name: yes, he’s gay. Between father, three sons, two daughters-in-law, a visiting bishop and his son, there seems to be endless potential for self-righteous condemnation of almost everyone by almost everyone else. This kind of fast-breeding fission is familiar in Britain among, for instance, various sects of Scottish and my own Northern Irish Presbyterianism. But it is also a common political phenomenon, whether among the new right in the European Parliament or the domestic left attempting to rebuild itself as a coherent force. It is seldom a matter of principle, but of being seen to be right.
Younis’s direction is not subtle, but nor does it need to be. Leo Wringer’s Eli comes into his own in the second act, set in Leytonstone, east London, four years after the Caribbean first, when his increasing decrepitude and the kindness of gay son Joshua (Clint Dyer as the Cordelia of the play) bring him gradually to re-evaluate his inflexibility. Frances Ashman is the primary viewpoint figure as Ruth, the sincere but unappreciated wife of single-minded pastor Nathan, and I mean it as a compliment to Akiya Henry’s acting that her character Joylene, wife of the schismatic Zechariah, cannot utter a word without her own advancement being clearly in view. At the end, Maya Angelou’s exhortation “Be, and be better” echoes around the bereaved family, in equal parts hollow and hopeful.