By any account – not least her own – Mary Seacole’s life, from 1805 to 1881, was wonderful. It’s now commemorated by a fine bronze statue in the gardens of St Thomas’ hospital, London, and Cleo Sylvestre was there in full costume at its unveiling. That splendid occasion on June 30th this year was the perfect curtain-raiser for her mission to bring Mary’s “Marvellous Adventures” to new audiences.
That full and striking blue dress befits its colourful subject, but on the whole this is plain storytelling, of generous warmth and character. You could say penny plain – because not having too many pennies to her name was often what preoccupied Mary. She happily declared herself “an independent woman prepared for anything”, including – as it turns out – double bankruptcy. She was a businesswoman first, and carer second; she was of Jamaican-Scots parentage, and took her box of herbal remedies with her wherever she went. And, boy, did she move around: to London, selling pickles and spices, to the Bahamas, Panama, Haiti, Cuba, back “home” to Kingston at intervals, and into the Crimean war.
Sylvestre has only a small space in which to act. She’ll walk three paces behind a screen and occasionally sit at a table, but otherwise she’s standing and speaking with the front row barely a metre away. It’s a bright, open performance, with a full smiling gaze and an almost-chuckling narrative style as mishap follows mishap. She plays an old soldier once or twice or an obstructive politician now and then, but for the most part she’s Mary, whose father happened to be white and whose mother was black, kind of. So what? Mary meets racism and bids it good-bye – which is instructive, and just maybe is how it actually happened.
The early biographical detail of dolls and pets is fond and amusing, but I guess the real interest is when she’s in the Crimea with Florence Nightingale. The script is uncontroversial, and as accurate as it needs to be, given that the actual historical record makes it clear that Seacole was running a canteen and boarding house. Auxiliary nursing is as far it went and there is no doubt that her tea and lemonade went down well with all ranks. The fact that her business extended to providing catering for battlefield spectators is obliquely referenced, when Mary sighs “Ah, the Light Brigade. I was there y’know”.
The play is more than a historical cameo, but not by much. No matter: Sylvestre created this role to be friendly and immediately accessible, and it certainly is. It has all the heart that you would expect of Punch Magazine’s tribute A Stir for Seacole: “She gave her aid to all who prayed / To hungry, and sick and cold”. That quote’s from 6 December 1856, yet it still resonates today.