ONCE ON THIS ISLAND at Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre
“It is the score, the exuberance of the performances and the musicianship that carries this show”
Based on a book (‘My Love, My Love’ by Rosa Guy), in turn based on a fairy tale (Hans Christian Anderson’s ‘The Little Mermaid’), “Once On This Island” has used the bare bones of each while dressing it with more than a touch of Shakespeare’s ‘Romeo and Juliet’, throwing in shades of Alberto Casella’s ‘Death Takes a Holiday’. It is a mix that produces something exciting and effervescent but is ultimately not so easy to swallow. Or follow.
Set in the Antilles archipelago bordered by the Caribbean Sea, the story within a story focuses on Ti Moune, a peasant girl, who falls in love with Daniel Beauxhomme, a ‘grand homme’ from the other side of the island and the class divide. The island is ruled by four Haitian Vodou Gods (of earth, water, love and death). Ti Moune and Beauxhomme are brought together as a result of a wager among the gods. Is love stronger than death? Or vice versa?
Directed by Ola Ince, it opens the new season at Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre. As dark clouds spill their empty threats over London, a fabricated storm ignites the stage and the action. A burst of sight and sound, but lacking real substance. It is the score, the exuberance of the performances and the musicianship that carries this show. Stephen Flaherty’s music (with book and lyrics by Lynn Ahrens) creates the atmosphere and the setting, despite Georgia Lowe’s sparse backdrop that fails to give any real sense of location. As the sun sets, however, Jessica Hung Han Yun’s evocative lighting creates the requisite tropical hues that help us to forget the London chill.
The solid cast lead us through the musical numbers with an energy that keeps the piece alive. Gabrielle Brooks, as the adult Ti Moune, gives a powerful and enchanting performance, locked in the suffering of her unconditional love for Stephenson Arden-Sodje’s perfectly voiced yet undeserving Daniel. One fails to see how Daniel earns such devotion, nor can we truly understand the sacrifices Ti Moune makes for him. But after all, we are in the hands of the Gods, so it is best just to relish in the pageant. It is a show for the senses and not for the heart.
With a six-piece band – led by Musical Director Chris Poon- tucked away somewhere in the treetops, the ensemble cast are given the propulsion needed to reach for the stars, aided by some fine numbers. ‘Mama Will Provide’ lets Anelisa Lamola’s voice soar as Asaka, the Mother of the Earth. The standout is Lejaun Sheppard’s Papa Ge: Demon of Death, who sets the stage alight (literally) each time he appears. Yet each cast member is an indispensable pulse that keeps the beat throughout. The belting numbers ‘Waiting for Life’, ‘Pray’ and ‘Forever Yours’ early in the show are later reprised and given new life and meaning.
There is plenty of life in this revival of “Once On This Island” but not so much meaning. There is definitely enough to satisfy the senses in this little pocket of London where Camden borders the Caribbean.
“a stunning exploration of narrative infidelity, space, and the way in which stories shape our view of the world, and of ourselves”
If a baby’s crying in the room next door, how can you sit down and write? When children’s toys litter the ground, and the only desk is taken by your husband, how can you find space to be creative? If fiction resembles life too closely, how can you be sure what’s real and what’s not? Ellen McDougall’s new play, at the theatre she artistic directs, is a stunning exploration of narrative infidelity, space, and the way in which stories shape our view of the world, and of ourselves.
Adapted from Valeria Luiselli’s 2011 novel, published in an English translation by Christina McSweeney in 2014, three interweaving narratives form a vibrant tapestry on stage. The Woman, played with vigour and conviction by Jimena Larraguivel, attempts to tell her audience a story. A nagging child (played alternatively by Juan-Leonardo Solari and Santiago Huertas Ruiz) interrupts with comments and questions. A baby’s cries force her away, leaving little notes for her husband to read out at her command. Upsetting the flow of her tale, these moments of male pressure remind of the ease at which women’s creative potential can be disturbed. One long table dominates the stage. At first, The Husband (Neil D’Souza) sits here to work. It’s only after The Woman befriends a neighbour, The Musician (Anoushka Lucas) that she finds a table, and space, of her own to write. Working as a translator in Mexico City, she discovers a book of letters by Mexican poet Gilberto Owen that so reflect her situation she feels compelled to get them published. As her attempts hit various stumbling blocks, Owen comes to haunt her present, causing her grip on what’s real and what’s not to slowly dissolve.
Larraguivel is a dominating force in this production. Holding the audience in her grip throughout, this is her story to tell. Direct address keeps us hooked, and intriguing moments of introduction – “This is what I looked like smoking a cigarette” – underscore how narration and presentation are two very different beasts. Unafraid to be messy, Bethany Wells’ design brings in the bright colours that invoked Mexico for English people like me. George Dennis’ sound design set an immediate sense of time and place in brief moments, and the songs provided by Lucas throughout are simply gorgeous.
McDougall’s collage-like adaptation interlaces the narratives neatly. The theatre’s programme and posters credit the original author and translator prominently, fitting in a play where translation becomes a key aspect. In fact, the whole market of Latin American translation is almost mocked. What is it that English-speaking audiences seek from these texts? What do we expect? As The Woman asks, who is made invisible when we experience these stories?
If Faces in the Crowd has a flaw, it feels a little too long, the text not always gripping when it should, and at times the narrative strand a little unclear. But perhaps that’s the point. Like the house in which The Woman writes, telling stories can get messy. Find your space, and fight for it.