16 February 2015

Islands at Bush Theatre was compelling, political and weird

Island told me that it was going to be a play about tax exiles and so it was, sort of. It turned out to be more than a play and to be about more than just tax exiles.

But let's start at the end, jump to beginning and then fill in the gaps in the middle.

A couple of days after seeing Islands I came across The Guardian's review of it on one of my RSS feeds and the headline was, "grotesque drama about tax havens avoids the real issues". I did not read the rest because of the conceit of the reviewer in stating that they knew what the "real issues" of the play before. I have read too many reviews of good plays that I have seen where the reviewer has criticised the play for not being what they wanted it to be, rather than for what it was. That is one very good reason not to read reviews.

I had chosen this Monday to go to the Bush on the expectation that I would be working in central London but it proved easier to work from home so I had the easy trip up from Richmond to make. I was still very much counting my steps so I got off the tube at Goldhawk Road and walked the last leg through the empty Shepherd's Bush Market that follows the tube line up to the station that it shares its name with.

I still got there earlier and anticipated and settled down with a leisurely coffee. The queue, of one, had already formed by then but I remained seated until just before the doors opened by which time the queue had grown to about five and so I was still one of the first ones in.

Once again the Bush surprised me with its layout. This time the main part of the performance area was a rectangular pit with seating close by on the two long sides and a little further back on the short sides. I grabbed a seat in the front row on the far side.

For reasons that totally escape me, The Bush has more people looking out for photographers per audience member than any other theatre that I have been to and they take their job seriously so I was unable to get a view-from-my-seat shot but it was not unlike this one that I found on the internet.

The picture also tells you an awful lot about the play and why the adjective "grotesque" was used earlier. The characters and the set made Islands feel like a crash between Rocky Horror and Jerusalem, and that had to be a good place to start.

Islands was more a fusion of ideas and themes to than a story. The elements included strange characters in strange costumes, moving around and through the audience, words and songs, the Garden of Eden and old news recordings. To use just one example, there was a short interval which was announced by the lead character, Mary, by saying that the cast were going to have a short rest, which they did while remaining on the stage.

Tax exile was the theme of the story (though the story was only one of the many themes of the play) which had Mary (played by Caroline Horton who also wrote it) and her two helpers, apparently called Agent and Swill, on an island of land floating just a few feet above the mainland. Mary ruled this land with arrogance and disdain and made slaves of two people, Adam and Eve, captured from the mainland.

The play was about the mood it created, a mood of strangeness, surprises and surrealism. It was a mood that I found engaging and enthralling. Whatever Islands was I liked it, and I liked it a lot.

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