The Long Song: How I Love You For Making Me Think…
Andrea Levy’s work is amazing — hard hitting and yet nuanced — people are complex and multi-faceted; so I waited with baited breathe to see what Chichester Festival Theatre would do with her work.
We are on stage with a plantation in the background and some elegant European furniture in the front. The presence of the plantation reminds us at all times how all of this is being funded, the system behind it and yet how people try and live ordinary lives doing ordinary things around the dehumanising horror and torture of treating people like factory machinery and farm animals for stud and breeding. Notyourmommashistory has a good video on why you shouldn’t get a plantation wedding (US based) — these big estates are essentially on the same level as concentration camps, and it’s very helpful to bring this idea to the UK owned plantations in the West Indies.
Henry Fielding style, Miss July relates her own story from birth to great age; her son is trying to reach out to her — she is having none of it, nor being labelled a ‘slave’. We are facing terrible history and yet people remain people within it — we aren’t allowed to cancel anyone nor to make them wholly bad or wholly good; people are a complex mix of both. The Scottish overseer has essentially raped an enslaved woman and yet that child created in terrible circumstances is still loved and wanted and the overwhelming grief of Kitty at losing her child on the whim of a selfish white woman is heart rending. This scene is beautifully done as the aged Miss July retreats into childhood again alongside her mother — until she is whisked away to be a lady’s maid.
And yet the selfish and somewhat ridiculous Caroline Mortimer is just as enslaved as those who serve and shock her; she fears them. Her servants give her indifferent service, don’t respect her, play on the fears and she tries to tyrannise and bully them and yet can’t even do that well. Her enslaved servants mock her, knowing that she will hit herself in her own eye when she tries to whip them. She screams and shouts and yet is played by those meant to serve her with a bedsheet on the dining table, losing her pearl buttons during ‘mending’ and her brother breaks promises to her to — there is no life of luxury as promised and the man who marries her only does so to please his father and be close to another woman. The life she leads as a married woman is a kind of cruel slavery as he now has access to her land and possessions. She is also willing to see an innocent man killed and believe her own fantastical lies. Apart from the skirt hitching (clearly not a lady who is truly in her time and used to wearing long skirts!) and very fake wig, we see how women were just as culpable as men in promoting this system and living within its cruelty. Caroline Mortimer is regularly socially humiliated by her snobbish and wealthier neighbours, acts richer than she is (playing the great lady) and yet she feels she must. The women are not only willing to join in torturing those labouring for them but to turn a blind eye (literally) when a female servant is sexually abused next to them. The money making system promoting their lifestyle is alienating and unbearably cruel. Cruelty comes back to bite when an elderly enslaved person relishes their freedom and in forcing their mistress not only to pay but to flee in a humiliating manner. It’s strange in this system how manipulation and yet a kind of trust and reliance develop. Caroline Mortimer is then forced to lie and play a different tune to a different man because she likes her new overseer. She longs for children, but only get her husband’s via his lover. The cruelty in this society is immense.
Creatively, the production suggests languorous, romantic, tender love rather than showing us physical exploits and revolution is shown through African cultural symbols chasing red coated soldiers, and this opens the play up to a wider age audience.
Again and again this play says ‘how could they do it? How could they live with themselves?’ Caroline Mortimer’s brother can’t and commits suicide; at the same time, leaving his sister in a cowardly fashion to face social humiliation and debt. The new overseer wants to do the right thing, and yet the freedom system is just as much of a trap as the old. Formerly enslaved persons generate governmental cash for their former owners in the form of compensation; they are not given the land they’ve worked, but forced to work on it according to the old standards. The clash between the overseer’s desire to do the right thing, motivated by pleasing his father and his faith, and needing to make a profit, which can only happen by the old means, and the former enslaved people’s desire to get on with their lives, to work the hours they want to work, to have a Christmas is huge, and the overseer goes mad in their desire to work land which can only be worked under enslaved labour forces.
There’s also the ‘what if’. What if an overseer and an enslaved person really do fall in love? What if your intentions are really good — how can you do this in a society based on 300 years of cruelty? The play is very good at showing us the hierarchies in this society — based on ridiculously cruel things like skin colour, hair texture and nose size; between free and unfree; Western and African; in social standing and status; between men and women; old and young; between different types of people (Asian labour is being brought in as another kind of cheap labour because they are perceived to be more docile and accommodating than the enslaved black and brown people); between those classed as people and those classed as machines/animals (such as the horror of the Morrisons examining Kitty’s leg muscles); even the sniping between favoured servants and those who are not (July and Molly or July vs Miss Clara).
In a way, Robert Goodwin, the new overseer, is just as enslaved — to making the estate make profit, to pleasing his father, and cruelly enslaves Caroline Mortimer in a loveless marriage, treating her as a bridge to get to be with the woman he really wants. A whole year of this….He is kind to one and yet deeply unkind to another woman. And yet he loves, and loves his child….and pampers July, wanting her to have the best, and he wants to make the new situation work….
July’s son is desperate, not only to acknowledge his mother, but also to record this painful history… Will July participate in his book? Miss July’s transformation into another Queen Victoria is quite something. She challenges us at the end to consider our history — we get a sense of how painful history and truth was lost because the owners of it didn’t want to tell it, to talk about it or remember it, or chose to tell a different, better story as a kind of fight back. Miss July wants her post-Amity story to be one of soaring victory not of poverty, disease, death and harassment, constantly fighting off injustice. The layered sense of history is also shown through the characters who act as a Greek chorus interjecting with their own versions of events and encouraging July to tell the truth. Words are important — for example, July is described as a houseslave vs housekeeper and lady’s maid, and the vile descriptions of N word that people routinely use to describe other people.
Names also become important — names are lost and new names given — such as Kitty who is talked about as though she was a cow — they didn’t think she’d live, but look at her now — she’s bred! Fanciful classical names such as Nimrod (which you might give to a favoured hound) or deeply inappropriate names such as Venus; not to mention the horrible accessories such as chains, collars, branding, beatings, exposure and loss of limbs/body parts. Even in the way that enslaved people’s burials were not recorded or former burial grounds casually built upon. Equally the plantation names are hideously ironic — Amity is not a place of friendly relations, ever!
The story makes us think more widely — to the ways in which formerly enslaved people might continue to live in the places of their torture, to bear the names of their former owners and persecutors; of the psychological damage of rape and forced sex; of making people ‘breed’; of all living alongside each other in this hideous trauma for 300 years; of allowing families to form then tearing them apart; of denying and limiting travel without a pass; of not respecting marriage and relationship and family bonds; of losing or giving away children (even the desperation of killing yourself, your children rather than live in this horror); of constantly having to prove yourself; of the dehumanising of men to ‘boys’ and seeing them as feckless, foolish and irresponsible; and super sexualising of women; of withholding rights to education, literacy, big chunks of the Bible; of fight backs through force, violence and through ‘stupidity’ and ‘mistakes’ such as bed sheets into table cloths, appropriation of objects; of playing bad music so that you are told to go away and you can have your own and better party, and living with people who you fear could turn on you at any moment; of saying the right thing rather than the truthful thing (such as when July tries to impress her new overseer with her sociability, then Bible knowledge). Rather than stating the obvious, the writing makes us think -well why can’t she read well or why hasn’t she been able to learn the Bible stories fully?
But this isn’t a story of white people = bad and black/brown people = good; everyone is flawed and has good and bad points, and we sit back and think….It doesn’t promote more hate. And as July states — what is the purpose of her telling us her true history, what are we going to do with it, how will we use it and what good will it do?
Llewella Gideon was quite wonderful. I think the TV version gave a bit more time to the new overseer’s madness, vengeance and breakdown; about why he chose to take his baby from his enslaved wife. Here this part about leaving is a bit rushed and spannered in at the end. I’m so sorry that Andrea Levy is no longer here because we really need voices like hers, as she could reach across to everyone and preach to our hearts.