Thursday, November 06, 2008

Play: Further Than The Furthest Thing

This was a play set by Zinnie Harris, set on an unnamed remote island (but clearly one modelled on Tristan da Cunha). This production was by some theatre company called HATCH, and took place in the Project Arts Centre under the direction of Annabelle Comyn. I enjoyed this so much that I found myself wishing I went to the theatre more – good job there is a theatre festival coming up*. The play does the usual thing of comparing the isolated islanders to the people living in the wider world, suggesting that the islanders lead a simpler and more real life, but then we learn that the island folk have their own ways and so on. It is so evocative of living in the world's most isolated community that I am now pondering the practicalities of visiting Tristan da Cunha (for what would probably the world's dullest holiday, but such is life). I doubt this is somewhere I will ever actually make it to, but I can dream.

One thing I wondered, though, is whether the film really played fair with the islanders. It is very evocative of their culture, and does make you favourable disposed towards them, but it does fall back a bit on the old "They've got their own ways" clichés about people in isolated communities. I found myself thinking this a lot in the second part of the play… there is a very powerful scene when we learn the dark secret of the islanders. I would be curious as to what the actual inhabitants of Tristan da Cunha would make of this revelation, as a cursory bit of historical research (looking at Wikipedia, basically) reveals that the terrible events described could basically never have happened. Now, of course, you could say that well, the play is a work of fiction and nothing in it ever names the island as Tristan da Cunha, but so much of the other incidental detail of the play points to there (the volcanic eruption, crucially) that you could not really have anywhere else in mind for it. But this is just a bit of a quibble, and it does not stop the play working as a powerful piece of drama.

I won't say what the islanders' dark secret is, but I will say that it is not like that of the Pitcairn people. I reckon only leaves two possible "own ways" for a clichéd isolated community, so you've got a 50% chance of guessing correctly.

The play does well with neat juxtapositions and contrasts – island-mainland, tradition-modernity. The first half is set on the island, while the second sees the islanders uprooted and dropped into the modern world. The geographical shift changes them, with some of them becoming like the mainland people. The play is a bit ambiguous on whether the contrast can also be seen as one of good-bad. The only character not from the island appears initially as almost an avatar of The Devil, there for nothing but to tempt the islanders into the modern world; but he is humanised and given enough depth to be more than just a cartoon villain. The islanders themselves seem to represent a simpler and purer way of life – but they have their own dark secrets. Or do they? Their secret is not something your would want to tell everyone about, but you would probably have done the same in their situation.

One thing that makes this play so enveloping is the accents and phrasing adopted by the characters. I've never been to Tristan da Cunha, so I can't say how accurate they were, but they were very evocative of how the speech patterns of an isolated community would develop (or not develop – isolated communities often retain forms of speech that die out elsewhere). I subsequently joined the I-Wuv-Tristan-Da-Cunha group on Facebook, and sure enough, it seems from there that the islanders do indeed have the most unusual form of speech. Of the actors, Fiona Bell was maybe the most impressive, but her role was the most central so she had more to impress with. You could not fault any of the others, all of whom delivered unforgettable performances in an exceptional production of an unforgettable play.

The first paragraph of this appeared previously in the pages of Frank's APA

image source

*I ended up going to dick all in the festival, such is life.


Anonymous said...

The two possible 'own ways' for an isolated community: 1. Cannabilism (sp?) or 2. Human sacrifice? Am I missing a more obvious one? Angela

ian said...

I think that's it really.

now that I think of it, the fictional secret of the islanders in the play is neither of these, though it is closer to one than the other.