Secondary characters give audience members a headache in Jackie Sibblies Drury’s play about the Jamaican doctor. Its description on the Donmar’s website rightly reads that it puts “the concept of a biopic through a microscope”, for the 100-minute show from the Fairview writer is depressingly dizzying and disorientating.
Jolting from a present day setting to Seacole’s era, the play intends to offer up transcendental perspectives on healthcare, race and more. As soon as we see the protagonist (Kayla Meikle) in a familiar NHS-like setting (Cabaret designer Tom Scutt does a fine job considering the restraints of the Donmar’s stage) or playing World of Warcraft in a park, we’re transported to the age of Victorian dresses and the Crimean War.
With all the time-travelling, it should be the dialogue which helps us get our bearings and shares the key messages of the production. Yet, the conversations are hardly enthralling or important enough to catch one’s attention – one American mother’s telephone call felt like useless filler, while Seacole treating an unconscious woman as another character delivers a monologue about their own medical history is particularly tedious. If one’s attention doesn’t wander due to the subject matter of the dialogue, then poor sound design and constant crosstalk makes a lot of the production so incredibly exhausting and hard to follow.
And to be clear, I know director Nadia Latif’s style when it comes to Sibblies Drury’s work is to be abstract, daring and borderline bizarre, dismantling what we’ve come to expect from traditional theatre (at one point in Marys Seacole, an actress bites into a rubber chicken). However, dashing dialogue alongside speeding scenes offer us little time to process what is happening, and thus it tries to do too much in its 1 hour and 40 minute running time.
Ultimately, while the performances from the supporting cast are commendable, it’s Meikle’s monologues which ground us and give us a greater sense of what’s going on. As I write this review, I can’t help but feel like an approach similar to that of Morgan Lloyd Malcolm’s Emilia – whereby three actresses play the eponymous character across different moments in their life – would have made things a lot more straightforward than the wild jumping between settings.
Also like Emilia, there is one final monologue in which the protagonist asserts themselves, and yet here – just like many other moments in Marys Seacole – secondary characters join in and drown out what could have been a powerful, solitary moment for Meikle – had she had the opportunity to address the audience alone, like she did at the start of the production.
Meikle channels the sassy and self-assured Seacole effortlessly. As she speaks, she clenches her fists for emphasis, before opening them outwards – symbolic of her standing her ground despite adversity, and then reaching out to help others; to ground oneself in the moment before letting go of the stress that comes with working in an intense medical environment.
It’s in Meikle’s monologues where Marys Seacole triumphs, yet these are tragically scarce within the constantly morphing production. They offer us audience members stability, standing out amongst the overwhelming white noise of everything else, just like a medical professional does today.
Marys Seacole is now playing at the Donmar Warehouse until 4 June.
Audio described, captioned, relaxed and BSL interpreted performances take place on 21, 23, 26 and 30 May respectively.
Production images: Marc Brenner.
Disclaimer: I was invited to watch ‘Marys Seacole’ for free in exchange for a review of the performance. I did not receive payment for this article and all opinions stated above are honest and my own.