SERVING ELIZABETH by Marcia Johnson (Stratford Festival). At the Tom Patterson Theatre Canopy, Stratford. Runs to September 26. stratfordfestival.ca. Rating: NNNN
At a time when most theatre companies are re-examining who gets to tell what stories onstage and why, Marcia Johnson’s brilliant new play Serving Elizabeth fits right into the discussion. Originally commissioned by the Thousand Islands Playhouse, it’s a thoughtful, entertaining and moving look at representation and the lingering effects of colonialism.
The play opens in a small Kenyan town in 1952, where a proud restaurant owner and cook named Mercy (Arlene Duncan) and her daughter Faith (Virgilia Griffith) are struggling to get by while Mercy’s husband recovers from a stroke.
Word of Mercy’s culinary expertise has spread, which explains the presence of Talbot (Sean Arbuckle), a mysterious white tourist at their off-the-beaten-track spot. After sampling the menu, he offers the two women the chance to prepare authentic Kenyan meals in residence for the upcoming royal visit by Princess Elizabeth and her husband, the Duke of Edinburgh.
Mercy, who’s still bitter about England’s involvement in Kenyan politics, angrily declines, but Faith – who’s about to head to university – sees this as a life-changing opportunity. Faith has also begun flirting with Talbot’s driver, an ambitious, Cambridge-educated Kenyan named Montague (Cameron Grant).
The second setting is 2015 London, where Tia (Griffith), a Kenyan-Canadian aspiring screenwriter, is working as an unpaid intern on a prestigious TV series that sounds a lot like The Crown. When Tia sees the episode based on the royal trip to Kenya, she’s appalled at the writer’s lack of sensitivity toward the Kenyans. And she’s determined to do something about it.
Aided by director Kimberley Rampersad, Johnson expertly interweaves scenes from both eras, with the actors taking on contrasting roles, slipping effortlessly into A.W. Nadine Grant’s period-appropriate costumes and, between scenes, often moving furniture around on designer Tamara Marie Kucheran’s handsome set. Debashis Sinha’s score is subtly effective at bridging both eras.
Johnson seems more comfortable with the earlier period, where there’s lots of opportunity for humour, such as when Talbot instructs Mercy and Faith about how to address royalty. Since we’re told early on that Elizabeth’s visit was cut short – I went in not knowing why – the question of what happened lingers over the play and adds an element of suspense.
The actors also have less to do in the more contemporary scenes, although Arbuckle, so prim and proper as Talbot, gets to let loose with his twitchy, neurotic impersonation of a wealthy, Oscar-winning screenwriter (a cross between Christopher Hampton and Peter Morgan), as well as a hilarious figure from Tia’s derivative romantic comedy idea.
While the scenes between mother and daughter form the heart of the play, the work’s climax comes in a confrontation between Mercy and Elizabeth (Sara Topham), powerfully staged by Rampersad to give the scene weight and dignity. It’s here that we get to understand Mercy’s resentment about the English; what makes the scene unforgettable is how Duncan brings out her character’s namesake – mercy – in such a difficult situation.
Richly detailed with urgent ideas about representation, privilege and cultural insensitivity, Serving Elizabeth is a gem. Theatre companies across the country should be clamouring to mount their own productions.