Nine Night by Natasha Gordon
At the Dorfman
12th May, 2018
“We are all fragments of someone to feel so disjointed”
Nine Night, also known as Dead Yard, refers to a Jamaican custom of nine nights of official mourning following the death of a loved one with lots of friends, food, drink, and dancing. The final night, Nine Night, is the most important: it’s when the spirit of the deceased is given a final farewell, and encouraged to leave the house.
Natasha Gordon’s nerve centre is the recently deceased Gloria, a Londoner whose roots lay in Jamaica. All the events take place in Gloria’s home, and as her dead body lingers upstairs, we meet her assorted family members: her cousin Maggie and Maggie’s husband Vince, her children in the UK, Robert and Lorraine, Robert’s (white, English) wife Sophie, Lorraine’s daughter Anita, and the daughter she left behind in Jamaica, Trudy.
Cecilia Noble (Maggie) delivers a tour de force as the nit-picking hypochondriac. Her eccentric habits of expression make her interfering comments hilarious. We watch her recharging herself to deliver her memorable one liners, noting that the Freedom Pass was the “Only decent ting me gat from dis teeving gov’ment.” And later, she worries that her dead sister’s bird’s-nest hairdo may “frighten Jee Suss!”
The play’s Caribbean humour is sometimes lost on a European audience which makes me smile. On the one hand, the Jamaican patois takes some time to adjust to. Nevertgeless, it is deployed effectively with Maggie’s Jamaican verbal acrobatics. Her ripostes create moments of complete hilarity, supplemented by her personal injections of wisdom: “Be careful, not carefree”; “When yuh get to Heaven, yuh see, God will deal wid yuh”; “Save yuh eye water, niecey”. The linguistic mix of English and the West Indian verbal rhythms gives conversation sheer energy as well as a shared cultural delight in observing Jamaican mannerisms or cultural rituals which are lost on the world outside.
To prevent Maggie stealing the show completely, other areas are explored. Anita, (Rebekah Murrell) a pseudo-revolutionary and new mother, is trying to negotiate her own racial and cultural identity. Franc Ashman’s portrayal of Lorraine as her mother is raw as it is touching. She is the non-appointed matriarch struggling to cope with her mother’s death and her family’s approach to mourning. Robert is not only a delboy-like businessman whose plans have gone awry but also his character highlights the legacy of absent fathers. Gordon makes great use of Sophie; Robert’s (ironically stage token- white) wife who is fully accepted by the family but also, in a neat inversion of the way Britain treats its black immigrants, is never allowed to forget she is different, too. Even the dynamics change when the estranged sister Trudy (Michelle Greenidge) turns up, bringing a taste of Jamaica with her. With so many narratives in play, you are left feeling that some of their stories deserved to be fleshed out into a full length drama. However, multiple personalities create the family claustrophobia as each grieves in a different way.
Roy Alexander Weise’s direction is sharp and snappy, making the most of Rajha Shakiry’s 70s set. The main action takes place in the kitchen which boasts bold and bright wallpaper with inexplicable crocheted detritus everywhere; plastic plants in every corner. Some use of the auditorium’s height (not a very frequent occurrence in this particular theatre) as a set of stairs is visible that leads up to the top floor of the house.
Nine Night is an intense at times a fractured 110 minutes with no interval. Dealing with death resonates in any culture. Pressures of traditions can be both a great burden and an enormous comfort in times of grief; a roadmap when you’re at your most lost, but one that can feel suffocating to follow.
While this may not be the most polished play we might see at the National, it does shine a light on an important aspect of contemporary British culture. It is 70 years since the Empire Windrush arrived at Tilbury Docks and with the current political storm over citizenship and the threat of deportations, it feels particularly timely for the National to be giving a voice to that generation and its descendants in this drama.
2018 is already proving a brilliant year for black British theatre and black actors.