Serving Elizabeth is a smash hit, well worth the 22 months’ wait to see live theatre again.
Out of a simple premise, playwright Marcia Johnson has forged an entertainingly complex production, full of satire, humour, drama, politics and provocative ideas.
Watching the first season of The Crown on Netflix in November 2016, Johnson was struck by the absence of any speaking roles for Kenyans in the episode covering Princess Elizabeth’s tour to their country in February 1952. The Crown screenwriter Peter Morgan’s dramatic focus was all on the royals and other white faces, as this was the occasion when Elizabeth’s father King George VI died, making her overnight the Queen of England and the Commonwealth.
Nigel Shawn Williams has his finest hour directing Serving Elizabeth, which premiered as a co-production of Western Canada Theatre and Thousand Islands Playhouse in February 2020. Cast and crew have worked this show to perfection.
In a village near the Nyeri Royal Lodge, a pompous Englishman (Ryan Hollyman) arrives at a tiny restaurant where he gets friendly service from Faith (Sia Foryoh) and an angry reception from her mother, the cook Mercy (Lucinda Davis). Turns out, after only briefly sampling the dishes served, that Lester Talbot, secretary to Princess Elizabeth, has come to offer Mercy an important job serving food to unnamed English dignitaries. Mercy will have none of it; only five years earlier she had participated in a women’s march protesting injustices done them by white settlers. The women were fined and rendered silent. But Faith is disappointed enough in her mother’s refusal to forge Mum’s signature on a contract big enough to guarantee Faith’s university education.
Ingeniously switching scenes through a swinging proscenium arch, the actors perform choreographed prop replacement to recreate a TV production office in London where Tia (Foryoh) is a Canadian intern learning about scriptwriting while doing a gofer job for Robin (Amanda Lisman), a politically charged lesbian and television showrunner. The problem at hand: Oscar-winning Brit playwright and screenwriter Maurice Gilder (Hollyman) has just turned in a dreadfully colonial, tacky script for a series about Queen Elizabeth, starting with the Kenyan episode.
Strangely, Kenyan-born Tia is not enthused about a trip to the country of her birth for the upcoming shoot. “But it’s part of your heritage,” says Robin. “So is the plague,” Tia responds.
Love interest comes in the form of a chauffeur to Lester Talbot, a man named Montague (“I have a French name,” he boasts to Faith.) Nathan D. Simmons plays Montague and then reappears in the TV production office as Steven, auditioning for the abominable Gilder script, which involves kissing the feet of a princess. This time he is smitten by Tia. We begin to see where this generational plot is going.
A highlight in the swiftly moving two-hour production is the scene where the BBC has just announced the death of the king. Princess Elizabeth (Lisman) is in the lodge awaiting the return of Prince Philip from an outing. Talbot doesn’t want his princess to hear the news on the radio and charges Mercy — now in white uniform and trained in proper comportment before royals — to keep Elizabeth occupied so that she may learn the news from her husband. Lisman’s princess is high-handed at first, but Davis unleashes Mercy’s fury in an attack on the princess, spelling out all the harms, including the death of her husband, that imperialism has brought to her and her compatriots. “It is refreshing to have someone speak to me as an ordinary person,” says the enlightened princess. Mercy extends her arm for a handshake.
Johnson made some intriguing choices in creating this play. The Kenyans sound more Jamaican than African, but the actors speak effortlessly and therefore sound completely authentic. Johnson gives Tia a backstory that reflects Sia Foryoh’s own birth and early childhood in Sierra Leone and Senegal, accurately reflecting 21st-century global culture in contrast to the imperialism that lingers in Gilder, the pompous screenwriter.
And Johnson and her director pull off a tricky meta scene, showing Gilder reading potential revisions to his script while upstage Faith and Mercy perform it. Such business gets a lot of help from set designer Camellia Koo, composer, sound designer Joelysa Pankanea and costume designer Vanessa Magic.
Serving Elizabeth serves its audience very well indeed.
By Marcia Johnson
Directed by Nigel Shawn Williams
At the Belfry Theatre in Victoria BC until December 19, 2021
Photo of Lucinda Davis and Sia Foryoh as Mercy and Faith by Peter Pokorny