In February 1952, the future Queen Elizabeth, still a princess at that point, found herself with her husband Philip on a tour of Africa. It brought her to Kenya, which was a colony and protectorate of the British Empire, at that point in history.
Eventually, after a bitter and bloodthirsty struggle, known today as the Mau Mau rebellion; an insurgency that saw atrocities, including the slaughter of women and children, committed by both sides. The country ultimately gained its independence in 1960; today it is a republic, although still part of the Commonwealth. This history is merely the backdrop for the play, it does not explore it in much depth.
As the play begins, the story we immediately follow is that of an older woman, "Mercy", (played by Keren Roberts), worried about her ailing husband, running a restaurant in Nyeri Kenya, with only her younger daughter, "Faith", (Germaine Konji), to assist her.
Into the restaurant comes Talbot, (Kevin Hare), an envoy for someone, who of course turns out to be English royalty. He is seeking a cook, someone to prepare authentic Kenyan cuisine, at the Sagana Lodge, near Mount Kenya, and is willing to pay big money.
These scenes from the 1950s, alternate with those set in London in 2015, around the time of the Brexit debate, where a young Kenyan born Canadian intern from Toronto, "Tia", (played by Germaine Konji), is working for the writing department of an unnamed television program, centred on the Royal family. This television program, is never called THE CROWN by name, but it's pretty clear to the audience, what show they are talking about.
The entire cast of five, play dual roles in each of the two timelines.
As Elizabeth, Kaylee Harwood is excellent; one of the more memorable moments of the play, bordering on farce, is when the servants are desperately trying to keep the Princess from learning about the death of the King, by keeping her from listening to the wireless. Rounding out the company is Percy Anane-Dwumfour in the dual roles of Montague /Steven; he gave a nice nicely nuanced performance.
In the planning stage, is an upcoming episode about the succession to the throne of Queen Elizabeth. And as one of Tia's jobs is copying the scripts and couriering them out to production staff, she gets an advance opportunity to read the episode.
She is clearly unhappy with what writer, "Maurice" (Kevin Hare) has prepared for broadcast. After arranging a meeting, she argues that all of the African characters, are essentially wallpaper, as they have no speaking roles, and this, she feels this is a huge disservice to the people and the history involved.
This is one of the central questions that the play asks is; who gets to write history? Whose voices are important and worthy of remembrance? Whose story gets told, and whose gets ignored?
Reading this synopsis, you might think that this is a very heavy-handed serious drama, but I assure you that it is not. These are very real human characters, that very quickly we grow to care about. They are family, they are memories to be cherished, and in that sense the play is an important attempt to reclaim, and change the narrative.
There is a certain "meta" aspect to the whole production. The character of Tia, is writing her own version of the history of Elizabeth's visit to Kenya, which by the end of the play is likely the same as the production that we are watching!
Jessica Chau's set design was very impressive with two levels, and two large staircases. There's a constant sense of motion, what I always call "the ballet of objects", that the cast themselves manipulate in order to transform us from the present to the past, and back again.
I also found Christopher Stanton's sound design worked well, with its radio chatter, period music, and newsreel announcements, effectively evoking the period of the early 1950s. The lighting by Tim Rodriques, was expansively beautiful, with rich hues of amber, fuchsia, and mauve.
Director Esie Mensah, has done a wonderful job keeping the pace of the play moving quickly; she has drawn some wonderfully nuanced performances out of her actors. Over and above the fact that this is about a specific African culture, the play is also a powerful demonstration of the solidarity of women. Even those from different cultures can find a great deal to agree about and celebrate.
It's also a lot about being Canadian in the United Kingdom, something that I can certainly relate to, as I spent a year there. It's that quality of being a colonial, in what was for many years an Imperial culture. Culture and theatre and Shakespeare, was actually used as a weapon in the colonial period. When Shakespeare is the greatest playwright of all time, it takes courage to write your own script; that in fact is what as known as "Post Colonial Theatre"; using culture to reclaim the narrative.
This particular play was at the Stratford Festival last season, and has also been seen across the country from Victoria, and Kamloops, to Gananoque; It certainly deserves this run on the main stage at Theatre Aquarius. I have written this before, but there has been an incredible sea change, in what new artistic director Mary Frances Moore is now programming at Aquarius.
For many years, I've felt that Theatre Aquarius was pandering to the audience, that it depends on it for its survival. Over the past decade, it was content to give them easily digestible work, that asked little in return. SERVING ELIZABETH, has it both ways; it is entertaining and funny, and yet has a great deal to say. I really came away from this production with a lot to think about, and it has stayed with me now all week.
Highly recommended! It's a rare opportunity to see a play like this one in Hamilton.
By Marcia Johnson
Directed by Elsie Mensah
A Theatre Aquarius production,
at the Dofasco Centre for the Arts.
October 19, to November 5, 2022
Tickets: 905-522-7529 or theatreaquarius.org
photos: Felix Vlasak, Frame-Work.