Focus on: Cleo Sylvestre

Writer/performer Cleo Sylvestre celebrates the life and achievements of Mary Seacole, the inspirational—but egregiously unknown—wartime nurse from the 1950s

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The Marvellous Adventures of Mary Seacole
Published 16 Jul 2016

Mary Seacole, a nurse who tended soldiers in the Crimean war, is finally being recognised in the UK.  As a statue of her is unveiled outside a London hospital—astonishingly, the first British memorial to a black woman—a one-woman show also arrives in Edinburgh.

“I read her autobiography about 30 years ago and thought, 'This would make a wonderful one-woman show',” says Cleo Sylvestre, writer/performer of The Marvellous Adventures of Mary Seacole. “But I’m very good at procrastinating…”

She kept returning to the book however, endlessly inspired by Seacole’s remarkable life. The daughter of a Jamaican nurse and a Scottish officer, she had a rare wanderlust, travelling widely. In 1854, compelled to help in the Crimean war, she travelled to London to petition the war office to let her serve as an army nurse. She was refused – and so went under her own steam instead, setting up the British Hotel for sick and convalescent officers, and braving gunfire on the battlefield to tend to the fallen.

“She led such an extraordinary life,” says Sylvestre. “A mixed race Victorian woman, travelling by herself: I love her spirit of adventure, and her dedication to helping people.”

It was about eight years ago that Sylvestre finally wrote a show about Seacole, initially for children, and it’s been snowballing ever since. She was asked to stage a version for adults at the National Portrait Gallery, and her Seacole has even turned up at the House of Lords. It’s wonderful, she says, to be able to introduce all sorts of audiences to her.

Sylvestre has been campaigning for the statue outside St Thomas’ Hospital – a 12-year project that met with surprising opposition. Florence Nightingale fans disputed Seacole’s legacy and argued her statue was inappropriate outside the hospital Nightingale was so associated with. Inevitably, there have been counter-accusations that such smears are driven by racial prejudice.

This needless sense of competition has saddened Sylvestre: “It’s not about one being better than another. Mary had a totally unconventional way of doing things – but she was a compassionate, caring woman, and she should be recognised for that.”

Sylvestre, who recently stepped down as artistic director of the Rosemary Branch, a pub theatre in North London, has had a prolific career. She released a single with the Rolling Stones in 1964, became the first black British actress at the National Theatre in 1969, and the first regular black British female character on TV, in Crossroads from 1970.

While we may still wring our hands about diversity in the arts, she insists things are “much better” than when she began her career. “It was like bashing your head against a brick wall. The horizons have widened – but there’s still a way to go.”