Marys Seacole – Donmar Warehouse, London

Reviewer: Richard Maguire

Writer: Jackie Sibblies Drury

Director: Nadia Latif

Those expecting a straight hagiography of Mary Seacole will be disappointed as the Donmar’s new play is more akin to something written by Sarah Kane or mid-career Simon Stephens. Crossing centuries and continents, Jackie Sibblies Drury’s new show examines not just the life of Britain’s second most famous nurse, but also the legacy of colonialism in the modern world. Marys Seacole is long and uneven, but it’s still the most exciting play of ideas in London at the moment.

Only the first 10 minutes will appease those wanting a chronological biography as this is where Seacole, played by Kayla Meikle, quotes from her autobiography. We quickly learn that Seacole wanted to be a ‘doctress’ from an early age while living with a white English woman in Kingston, Jamaica. She practised on the neighbourhood’s feral dogs and cats.

These early stages are performed simply in front of a medical screen; Meikle’s Seacole is stately, and also a little conceited, but she hardly moves from her spot and the evening promises to be a long one. It’s a relief when the curtain rises to reveal a modern room in a hospital. An old woman, addled with dementia, lies in the bed while her daughter bravely tries to re-ignite her memory with a photo album. Her teenage granddaughter plays with her phone.

Olivia Williams is marvellous in conveying the sense of white privilege that the daughter doesn’t even realise she has. She talks patronisingly to the black nurse – Meikle again as another Mary Seacole – before rushing out of the care home leaving the care of her mother to black nurses, the backbone of the NHS.

The scenes that follow focus on other mother-daughter relations. Of course, there is Seacole’s own relationship with her mother, who glides in and out of scenes like a ghost perhaps signifying her absence in Seacole’s childhood. A white American – one of many roles for an excellent Esther Smith – confides to two black child-minders that she is failing to cope as a mother, again ignorant of her economic privilege where she has the option to not work and look after her own child.

Of course, always hovering above the play is the relationship between Seacole, and Britain, the motherland. Despite the frosty response from the Government and Florence Nightingale to tend to the British Army in the Crimea, Seacole still calls the injured and sick soldiers ‘her sons’: although her treatment of them is not always motherly. Meikle wisely keeps sainthood at bay. The Crimea and other disasters are staggeringly imagined in Tom Scutt’s set design.

Not all scenes work, however. Susan Wooldridge’s batty old drunk visiting Seacole’s Jamaican boarding house is decidedly unfunny, and Drury drags out the final scenes to such an extent that some of the meaning is lost. As one of Britain’s most famous black people, Seacole’s crown is very heavy and Drury clearly depicts how much responsibility has been loaded on to a historical character. She is sacrificed repeatedly.

Drury is best when she is blunt. One of the Marys, tells a junior nurse (an impressive debut from Déja J.Bower) that black people were treated better when they were slaves; at least they held monetary value. Now, Britain treats the members of the Windrush generation as if they were worthless. Moments like these are chilling.

Runs until 4 June 2022

Heavy is the crown

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