Winsome Pinnock’s 1987 play Leave Taking is a work that will never cease to matter, not only due to its content, but because of Pinnock’s grasp of playcraft, too. It’s sweeping in the breadth of its subjects – family, poverty, inter-generational guilt, the experience of the Caribbean diaspora in this country – and yet she has such a level of detail and care for her characters’ histories that we’re never in any doubt that what we see is the briefest of glimpses, a breath’s worth of their lives.
Madani Younis’ revival at the Bush Theatre has this same light, considerate touch: the characters move through a suggestion of two houses, outlined by the placement of a few black boxes and the lines they take around them. No flashiness is needed to convey the home and work of the Obeah woman Mai (Adjoa Andoh), only her cards, salt, candles, and the sound of her chickens outside. It’s a pleasure to try to picture the layout of these ghost-rooms as the actors tell them to us by the careful way they inhabit and change them.
At the centre of the story is Enid, a matriarch with two increasingly wayward daughters, trying to keep her household in check, and to divine something of their future with Mai’s services. As Enid, Sarah Niles supplies the play’s strongest perfomance, often stern, tired, but at other times (especially with her neighbour and almost-brother, Brod, an irrepressible Wil Johnson) witty and joyful. She is a woman who has had to keep steady hold of herself her whole life, in the face of homesickness, poverty, and casual degradation from white coworkers. She has worked like a superhuman, like so many immigrants, to give her daughters a different life. As she tells Del (Seraphina Beh), her oldest, “People laugh at me, but they never laugh at you.”
It’s partly Del’s sense of this that makes their relationship so difficult. The women in Leave Taking are struggling against the weight of whiteness – and “Britishness” – pressing down on them, but also their debilitating expectations of themselves. They can barely make each other out beyond the guilt they feel at how they seem to be failing each other. It makes Enid dole out the toughest of love, and believe she has failed by not sending enough of what little money she makes to her relatives. It makes Viv (Nicholle Cherrie) want desperately to abandon her A-levels and make a trip to Jamaica, which seems illogical to her mother and sister when she is so close to university and to that elusive different life. It’s in Del’s frustration at being told she should be grateful. It’s in the hints we get at Mai and her estranged son.
The strangest part of Younis’ production comes as Enid is remembering her mother, drinking alone. She tells Viv how she’s hungry for food she can’t find here, and admits that once, she’d wanted to go to America. The only thing she can think to want now is to go home.
Water starts to drip down from nowhere. At first, it seems as if their “shithole” place, as Del describes it, has sprung a leak, then many leaks. But soon a tiny gate opens at the ground, and we see why the stage has this depression in it, a square lower than the rest of the floor: to let Enid sit with her slippers in the water. It makes the same kind of sense as Enid’s feeling.
Leave Taking is at the Bush Theatre until June 30th. For more details, click here.