Stratford Festival review: Serving Elizabeth by Marcia Johnson achieves two goals at once


An upheaval in Western popular culture over the past decade has been hard to ignore.

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An upheaval in Western popular culture over the past decade has been hard to ignore.

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Content creators in the entertainment industry have recently come under scrutiny as consumers and socially conscious critics ask important questions about portrayal in TV shows, movies, comics and video games.

In some cases, a casting announcement or trailer is enough to spark controversy. In others, beloved works of the past are re-examined and reassessed through modern lenses, fueling intense debates on social media about their heritage and value.

It is against this backdrop that Jamaican-Canadian playwright Marcia Johnson intervenes with Serving Elizabeth, an exploration of colonialism and oppression that, at the same time, offers a timely and nuanced take on recent cultural calculations. pop.

A clever narrative structure enables Johnson to accomplish the feat. The play, which premiered in Kamloops last year before being performed in Stratford on Thursday under the direction of Kimberley Rampersad, takes place in two venues simultaneously.

It all started in a Kenyan restaurant in 1952.

Mercy (Arlene Duncan), a chef and activist who has protested against the country’s English settlers, is blinded by a lucrative offer to cook for Princess Elizabeth (Sara Topham) during her famous visit to the country in February, shortly before his death. father, King George VI. Offended, Mercy strongly declines but is exhausted by her 21-year-old daughter Faith (Virgilia Griffith), who sees the opportunity as a way to pay for her education.

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The second plot of the play is set in London, England, in 2015.

Tia (Griffith), a Kenyan-Canadian production intern fascinated by the royal family, works at her dream job in the television industry when asked to help produce a show that portrays the visit of Elizabeth in Kenya. Tia faces a moral dilemma after directing the episode, written by successful white man Maurice (Sean Arbuckle), does not provide any meaningful roles portraying the Kenyans who, months after Elizabeth’s visit, would fight for their independence in a four-year revolt called The Mau Mau Rebellion.

Virgilia Griffith (center) as Tia with Sara Topham as Robin in Serving Elizabeth.  (Photo provided / David Hou)
Virgilia Griffith (center) as Tia with Sara Topham as Robin in Serving Elizabeth. (Photo provided / David Hou)

Johnson’s screenplay is rooted in the colonial history of Kenya, giving real weight to the conflicts between its characters. Highlights of both storylines are compelling showdowns that reward the show’s excellent character development and impressive double-handed performances from each actor, including a charming Cameron Grant.

Without spoiling too much (including a surprise twist), it’s in these final moments that Serving Elizabeth really shines.

Watching Mercy, whose hatred of the English boils just under a thin veneer of reluctant hospitality for the majority of the play, finally getting the chance to challenge Elizabeth face to face is satisfying. So is the heated discussion between Tia and Maurice during a brooding scene amplified by the production’s sound and light designers with a loud, crackling thunderstorm.

The interactions are sort of constructed as pay-per-view verbal price fights, but audience members anticipating a bloodbath may have been surprised; each character has enough leeway to evoke at least some empathy and find some common ground with their opponents.

Sean Arbuckle, center, as Maurice with Virgilia Griffith as Tia in Serving Elizabeth.  (Photo provided / David Hou)
Sean Arbuckle, center, as Maurice with Virgilia Griffith as Tia in Serving Elizabeth. (Photo provided / David Hou)

According to the play’s schedule, Johnson was inspired to write Serving Elizabeth after she was disappointed with her portrayal of the Kenyan people in an episode of Crown, Netflix’s hit show about the reign of Queen Elizabeth II.

Through her play, Johnson offers a thoughtful critique of how they could have been better represented and reminds us that conversations, even arguments, about representation can go far beyond the vitriol of social media.

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