Errol John’s play is set in a few mean feet of yard, a scrubby square of land with three houses crammed around it, but over the course of two sweltering days it reaches out to a dozen different Trinidads: a dozen ways to cope or fail to cope in a country bent by inequality and corruption. John’s debut seemed bound for the West End back in 1958, before nervous agents sabotaged its arrival, and after a short tour and six weeks at the Royal Court it faded into relative obscurity. A handful of British revivals since then have given it few opportunities to find an audience, but this immaculate revival should finally secure it the widespread acclaim it so obviously deserves.
Moon on a Rainbow Shawl is a play about pride: pride in personal integrity, pride in social standing, pride in the realisation of ambitions and pride in Trinidad itself. Sophia Adams (Martina Laird) is as hard as steel, struggling to hold her family together with back-breaking work and an acid tongue, striving to send her daughter Esther (Tahirah Sharif) to High School, care for her baby and see her layabout husband Charlie (Jude Akuwudike) win back the drive and ambition he has set aside. Her home, a miserable hut that creaks in the afternoon sun, is her fortress and when the play begins on a moonlit evening she makes a formidable matriarch. Sophia also shelters orphan girl Rosa (Jade Anouka), who has fallen deeply in love with the brawny Ephraim (Danny Sapani) who lives across the yard.
Above Ephraim lives the flamboyant Mavis (Jenny Jules) who keeps herself in glamorous outfits by prostituting herself to the American officers who crawl across the island like boozy tics. A masterful use of traverse staging sees Mavis’s balcony look sneeringly down into Sophia’s world: two faces of Trinidad in fiery opposition. At first Mavis’s flings and ridiculous boyfriend seem like a bad joke in comparison to Sophia’s proud home making, but as the Adams family begins to splinter, this cheap and corrupted vision of Trinidad becomes increasingly malevolent.
At the centre of the play is a yawning gender divide. Trinidad’s hopes seem to lie in its women: Sophia, Esther and Rosa are strong and resourceful where their male counterparts are worn and foolish. While the men lose themselves in dreaming of the future or dwelling ruefully in the past, the women (and noble Sophia in particular) want to rise up with Trinidad on their backs. Mothers and their mother country are constantly elided. When Ephraim confesses to abandoning his grandmother to rot in a poor-house so he could fulfil his vain and vague ambitions it could be all of Trinidad that he has betrayed.
From one squalid yard John casts his gaze over an impressive range of issues and conflicts. Poverty and class divides, the remnants of slavery and war, the strains of a country where visitors and invaders have blurred into one: they hang over the shacks as ripe and weighty as mangos. Despite this breadth John keeps the plotting tight, the calypso melodies do little to soothe the building tensions and the building threat of violence or disaster. There is a strong flavour of Tennessee Williams in the heavy, taut sexuality and of Arthur Miller in the thin façade of familial tranquillity and the awful mistakes of good people. John’s dialogue has its own distinctive voice, however, one which the cast ably draw out with their elegant Caribbean delivery.
The performers are uniformly superb, particularly Laird’s central performance as Sophia. The strength and dignity she exudes anchors the text and her resilience in the face of trial and tragedy are deeply moving. Danny Sapani excels as kindred spirit Ephraim, similarly still and deep, he is at once impenetrable and eloquent. Ray Emmet Brown comes close to stealing the show as the buffoonish Prince, and Burt Caeser finds a laughable solemnity in local land baron Old Mack.
Michael Buffong directs with an ear for the rhythm of John’s text and an extraordinary eye for movement and detail. The characters inhabit Soutra Gilmour’s convincing set as if they have lived there for decades. They know every inch of it, and they use it as if it is their own. When Laird makes a pot of coffee, it is with the ease of a woman who has made ten thousand pots on that little gas stove, and this pitch of naturalism sets this production at the highest of levels. Buffong’s triumph with Moon on a Rainbow Shawl makes his recent announcement as the new Artistic Director of Talawa Theatre all the more exciting.
As an overdue revival of a little-known classic, as a thrilling family drama, as an example of the National Theatre at its very best and most heartening, this production is an absolute must-see.