Stage Door Review 2021

Serving Elizabeth

Thursday, September 9, 2021


by Marcia Johnson, directed by Kimberley Rampersad

Stratford Festival, Tom Patterson Theatre Canopy, Stratford

September 2-26, 2021 in person;

October 28-November 28, 2021 online

“Princess Elizabeth is to-day at the shooting lodge at Nyeri, and is due to leave to-morrow for Mombasa. As yet her plans are not known” (Evening Standard, February 6, 1952)

Marcia Johnson’s latest play Serving Elizabeth is about how Black people deserve greater representation in mass media. While this is a worthy subject Johnson has chosen a chosen a poor target, namely a television series about the life of Queen Elizabeth II that closely resembles the Netflix series The Crown. Interspersed with scenes about Princess Elizabeth’s trip to Kenya in 1952 with Prince Philip are scenes set in the present about an unpaid Kenyan-Canadian intern who is working for the company that is producing the series about the Queen. The two parallel stories proceed well enough at first but reach climaxes that are highly improbable. Johnson’s conclusion that the stories of people of colour, even if totally fictional, should be made part of an historical series makes little sense in itself and is undermined by the play she has written.

Johnson particular target is Episode 2 “Hyde Park Corner” (2016) of the Netflix series The Crown. That is the episode in which Elizabeth and Philip take a trip to Kenya, the first stop on a four-continent tour, because King George VI is too ill to travel. Elizabeth uses the trip to promote the values of the Commonwealth, the community of independent, self-ruling former British colonies, formulated in 1926 and formalized in 1949, to replace the British Empire. On February 6, 1952, however, George VI dies, thus making Elizabeth the Queen. Though typified as the “Kenyan episode”, less than half of its 61 minutes takes place in Kenya, the majority of the episode dealing with cabinet meetings, George’s decline and death, Margaret’s affairs and the impact of her new status on Elizabeth.

The action of Serving Elizabeth alternates between scenes set in Kenya in 1952 and scenes set in London, England, in 2015. It begins in Nyeri, Kenya, with an Englishman Talbot (Sean Arbuckle), an envoy of the British monarchy, visiting a local restaurant run by a woman named Mercy Nyanjiru (Arlene Duncan). Mercy, who hates the English, does not want to serve him, but her daughter Faith (Virgilia Griffith) persuades her to relent. Her father and Mercy’s husband has had a stroke and it would be foolish to turn away business.

It happens that Talbot is something of an expert on Kenya cuisine. He tastes just a little of each dish he asks for and pronounces is exquisite. The mystery of Talbot’s behaviour is revealed when he announces he is looking for finest cook of Kenyan cuisine for his client who will pay handsomely for Mercy to cook for her and her husband for their weeks stay at Sagana Lodge. Faith is overjoyed when she discovers that Talbot’s clients are none other than Princess Elizabeth and the Duke of Edinburgh. Mercy, however, refuses to work for the British.

Mercy was part of the March for Harry Thuku on March 14, 1922, when 150 women joined more than 7000 men to assemble at the Nairobi Central Police Station demanding the release of Harry Thuku (1895-1970) a Kenyan nationalist leader. Thuku was not released but a woman, Mary Muthoni Wanjiru, thought it was because the male nationalists were weakening their stance. She led the women in a protest which caused the British to open fire killing many protesters including Wanjiru.

Despite this past experience Mercy is finally persuaded by her Faith to sign a contract to cook for the royal couple at the Lodge. Faith will accompany her as a servant. The logic of the Kenyan scenes is that Elizabeth wants to eat Kenyan food while in Kenya, that Mercy is the best cook of Kenyan food in Nyeri the town nearest the Lodge and therefore, apparently, money is no object in luring Mercy to work for the Elizabeth during the royal visit. This story is based on several false premises. It assumes that Elizabeth, who might sample local delicacies at a state dinner, would also want to immerse herself in Kenyan cuisine while in that country despite travelling with her own cook.

It also assumes that Elizabeth was staying at Sagana for a whole week when she learned of her father’s death. In fact, she and Philip were staying at Treetop, a hotel built by an Englishman specifically for game viewing. She was there when George VI died, but Philip did not tell her about the death until they had travelled to Sagana Lodge 20 miles away, after which she immediately left for England.

The most unbelievable detail of the Kenyan scenes is that Talbot would insist on hiring Mercy despite knowing from her and from Faith that she had made death threats against the Princess. Talbot must thus be an idiot to give someone with such animus against Elizabeth such an ideal opportunity to carry out her threats.

Indeed, when, in a highly contrived scene, Mercy finds herself alone with Elizabeth, a circumstance that would never happen to a royal in a foreign country, Mercy uses the chance to poison Elizabeth’s ginger beer. Mercy’s attempt to poison Elizabeth, is so illogical it’s hard to see why Johnson includes it. Will killing Elizabeth on the day her father dies help Kenya in any way?

Luckily, after Mercy tells Elizabeth about the March for Harry Thuku and Elizabeth is shocked that the British would fire on the protesters, Mercy manages to throw out the ginger beer before Elizabeth can drink it. Thus, one contrived circumstance of the two women being alone together leads to an even more implausible one.

Interleaved with the Kenya scenes are scenes focussed on Tia (Griffith again), who is an unpaid Kenyan-Canadian intern at a television production company. Much to the surprise of the White British production manager Robin (Sara Topham), Tia is a staunch royalist and for that reason is overjoyed to be working on a ten-part series about Queen Elizabeth.

All is well until Tia is given the chance to read the script by the famed White British playwright and screenwriter Maurice (Arbuckle again). Maurice is clearly a stand-in for Peter Morgan (born 1963), author of play The Audience (2013) about Queen Elizabeth’s meetings with her prime ministers, and the screenwriter of film The Queen (2006), about Elizabeth II’s response to Diana’s death, and the Netflix series The Crown (from 2016), which claims to be based on The Audience.

What disturbs Tia is the episode set in Kenya, where she claims Maurice gives no voice to the Kenyan people. The Mau Mau Rebellion against British rule had begun but Elizabeth never met with its leader Dedan Kimathi (1920-57) for obvious reasons. In fact, her stay in Treetops was chosen as a location to keep her safe from the rebels, who, in any case, never won popular support. The flaw in Tia’s thinking, surprising since she is shown to be so bright, is that she thinks the Kenyan episode is about Kenya instead of about Elizabeth learning that she has become Queen. In a series about the history of Queen Elizabeth II, the most important episode is going to be about her father’s death, a death which changed the course of her entire life.

What is unusual is not that Elizabeth is in Kenya or in Africa at all but that she is out of the country when she learns she has become Queen. This was only the second time in British history when a monarch acceded to the throne while outside the country. The first was George I (1660-1727), who was Hannover when he learned he had been named King. Thus to think that the Kenyan episode is about Kenya or its people is false. It is about the most important day in Elizabeth life. Similarly, the series’ depiction of Charles and Diana’s tour of Australia (season 4, episode 6) which is not about Australia or its people but about Charles’s resentment of Diana’s popularity.

The incident in the Kenya episode that Tia and Steven (Cameron Grant), a Black British actor, find most disturbing occurs when Elizabeth, now Queen, is leaving Sagana Lodge and a young man (Steven) surges through the crowd to kiss Elizabeth feet. Tia, the actor and Robin all take this the writer Maurice sanctioning a declaration of Kenya’s willingness to remain subject to Britain in a blatantly racist manner.

In fact, if one actually views the scene as filmed in The Crown, the situation is much different. When Elizabeth emerges from the Lodge the whole crowd is chanting in Swahili “Shauri mbaya kabisa” (“The very worst has happened”), a fact reported by the BBC at the time. The eldest member of the Lodge household, not a young man, steps forward from his place along Elizabeth’s path and stops her progress. He kisses each shoe and then says with great seriousness “Shauri mbaya kabisa”. The kissing of feet naturally looks like a sign of subjection to Europeans and North Americans. Yet, the Hadith of Islam (a record of actions Muhammad approved), the kissing of hands and/or feet is a sign of respect or honour and can only be done to a holy or a royal person. It also must not look like a sign of subjection. Thus, the shoe-kissing scene is a sign that the whole community honours Elizabeth in her grief.

Given this misunderstanding of a key event, the least unbelievable detail of the London scenes is Tia’s visit, under the pretence of interviewing Maurice, to force him to alter the Kenyan episode to include Kenyan voices. One wonders at how naive Tia must be to think that an unpaid intern could have any influence on a highly acclaimed playwright and screenwriter whose work has put him in so much demand. The failure of her visit results in the major reveal of the play. It is here that Tia states that the representation of people of colour in history is so important that is doesn’t matter if they are fictional. Yet the Kenyan scenes featuring fictional characters like Mercy and Faith have no effect because they are not believable.

If Tia, or indeed Marcia Johnson, were really concerned about giving voice to the Kenyan people, why focus on a visit by Princess Elizabeth at all? Why not write a play about the March for Harry Thuku with its strong female role? Why not write about the Mau Mau Rebellion and its horrific conclusion – the largest wartime use of capital punishment by the British Empire? Tia’s, and Johnson’s, focus on the events in one episode of a television drama seems absolutely trivial by comparison.

What makes this mixture of two fictional versions of history watchable are wonderful performances of the cast of five, all in multiple roles. Chief among these in both time periods is Virgilia Griffith as Faith and Tia. Both of Griffith’s characters are naive, enthusiastic and pro-British. Yet, Griffith clearly distinguishes the two in terms of accent, demeanour and gestural language. Her Faith is prim and charmingly bound by etiquette while her Tia is outspoken and volatile.

Arlene Duncan also has character is both times and places to play, but Johnson gives her very little to work with as Patricia, a British casting director, compared to her major role as Mercy, the Kenyan restaurant-owner. Duncan makes Mercy a hugely proud woman whose life has been embittered by past events and is made less stable by her husband’s infirmity. Duncan gives Mercy such innate dignity that it really seems out of character for Mercy to adopt an action so poorly thought-through as attempting to poison Elizabeth.

Sara Topham is in top form as Elizabeth, even down to taking on the ultra-posh accent that the young queen once used but now softened. Topham is also expert at playing the liberal but ever practical Robin, the British production manager.

Sean Arbuckle makes Talbot, the British envoy to Princess Elizabeth in Kenya, generous and persuasive if often mysterious in his motivations. As Maurice, the British screenwriter, he is suitable crabbed and pompous even if what he says to Tia is true. Maurice does raise the question of what ruckus a White writer would cause if he wrote dialogue for Black characters. It may be that only someone like Quentin Tarantino is allowed such leeway if the film is Django Unchained (2012).

Cameron Grant is a likeable presence as both the chauffeur Montague in 1952 Kenya and the actor Steven in 2015 London, but he really does nothing to make the two distinct. In his defence, both characters serve merely as potential love-interests for Griffith’s characters, and are so insubstantial as to be nearly ciphers.

Watching Serving Elizabeth brought to mind the phrase “Choose your battles”. To write an entire play about part of one episode of what will be a 60-episode television series, no matter what the subject matter, seems like a massive waste of energy. If representing Kenyan-British relations is the real subject, Kenyan history provides much more vital events that need to be more widely known. If the representation of Black people in the media is the real subject, one would be hard pressed to find a more powerful depiction of the frustration and compromises involved than are found Alice Childress’s 1955 masterpiece Trouble in Mind now receiving a much-deserved revival at the Shaw Festival. Marcia Johnson has written excellent plays on difficult subjects before such as Binti’s Journey (2009) about AIDS in Africa. If given subject matter of greater moment she surely could do so again.

Christopher Hoile

Photos: Arlene Duncan as Mercy and Sara Topham as Princess Elizabeth; Virgilia Griffith as Faith and Arlene Duncan as Mercy; Arlene Duncan as Mercy; Virgilia Griffith as Tia and  Sean Arbuckle as Talbot; Sean Arbuckle as Talbot and Sara Topham as Princess Elizabeth. © 2021 David Hou.

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