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- Title: Serving Elizabeth
- Written by: Marcia Johnson
- Director: Kimberley Rampersad
- Actors: Sean Arbuckle, Cameron Grant, Arlene Duncan, Virgilia Griffith, Sara Topham
- Company: Stratford Festival
- Venue: Tom Patterson Theatre Canopy
- City: Stratford, Ont.
- Year: To Sept. 26, 2021
To put it in the crude terms of the algorithm: If you like The Crown, then you may like Serving Elizabeth, a new play by Marcia Johnson currently playing at the Stratford Festival.
The drama is, on one level, the Black playwright’s response to a first-season episode of that very white Netflix series, which has been romping its way through the 20th century from the perspective of Queen Elizabeth II and her entourage for four seasons now.
Fans of the series and monarchists (not necessarily an overlapping Venn diagram) may recall that Princess Elizabeth found out that her father, George VI, had died and that she had acceded to the throne while she and Prince Philip were on a trip to Kenya.
The Crown episode that depicted this, written by series creator Peter Morgan, was the subject of the first of many critical debates to erupt around the program’s approaches to history and storytelling, because of the way Kenyans were used as mere background. “Just because The Crown is set in the 1950s doesn’t mean it should seem like it was written back then,” wrote New York magazine critic Kathryn VanArendonk in 2016, calling out the “noble-savage imagery” in particular.
Serving Elizabeth does more than just call out The Crown, however – it fleshes out the context that surrounded the Princess’s 1952 visit to Kenya, which was then on the brink of the Mau Mau Uprising, an anti-colonial revolt that paved the way for the country’s independence.
Johnson’s play begins in that year in the town of Kyeri, where Mercy (Arlene Duncan) runs a restaurant with her daughter Faith (Virgilia Griffith).
Talbot (Sean Arbuckle), an envoy of Princess Elizabeth, shows up one day to sample Mercy’s dishes – and then invite her to cook for the heir apparent on her impending visit.
Mercy is decidedly not honoured by the request, being an ardent opponent of the British occupation. Faith, however, tries to convince her to take the job for the money; they could hire a nurse to care for her ill father – and she could finally stop putting off going to university.
Serving Elizabeth isn’t just set in Kenya, however – these scenes are interspersed with others set in 2015 in London, England, on the brink of Brexit.
They focus on Tia (also played by Griffith), a Canadian film student with roots in Kenya, who is interning on a show that seems very much like The Crown.
This fictional series about the House of the Windsor is created and written by a Morgan-esque playwright-slash-screenwriter named Maurice (also played by Arbuckle, having a great time).
Tia, at first, comes across as an apolitical careerist primarily interested in getting bigwigs such as production manager Robin (Sara Topham) to read the romantic comedy she wrote. A scene where this white British boss critiques her Black Canadian unpaid intern’s script for not being progressive enough is surprising and provocative in its power dynamics.
Eventually, however, Tia does start to develop concerns about race and representation in the program she’s working for after taking part in a casting session for an episode set in Kenya – and decides to confront the show’s creator.
There’s a rich theatrical tradition of response plays that react to problematic elements of other plays – and it stretches back further than you might think. William Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew, for instance, was fairly quickly followed up by his sometime collaborator John Fletcher’s The Woman’s Prize, or the Tamer Tamed in which Petruchio gets schooled by his second wife, Maria.
It’s no surprise that today’s theatre creators would be more interested in responding to television, the dominant art form of our time – and indeed Johnson joins others who have taken on the streaming era from a feminist angle, such as Erin Shields (Beautiful Man) and Annie Baker (The Antipodes).
For this production presented under canvas at the Stratford Festival, Serving Elizabeth – which premiered in a two-act version in early 2020 at the Western Canada Theatre – had to be condensed into a single act; the theatre company has built this season around show slots of around 90 minutes for pandemic reasons.
I suspect this is why Johnson’s play feels a little long here – and director Kimberley Rampersad’s production feels a little rushed. The intermission is missed.
The scene where Tia and Maurice finally face off, in particular, could certainly use more room to breathe – for both the argument of the play and the revelation of how the two parts fit together – to land more effectively; indeed, something small but significant seems to be absent from the London arc, in script or in staging, that makes it feel less satisfying than the scenes in Kenya.
By contrast, the Kenya part of the plot hits the mark perfectly, culminating in a twisty scene where Mercy and Princess Elizabeth (also played by Topham) get up close and personal – Duncan is riveting in it.
In the interest of consistency across all critics’ reviews, The Globe has eliminated its star-rating system in film and theatre to align with coverage of music, books, visual arts and dance. Instead, works of excellence will be noted with a critic’s pick designation across all coverage.