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Features Published 28 January 2015

Buried Treasure

Exeunt's writers dig deep into Islands, Caroline Horton's new - and divisive - show at the Bush Theatre.
Exeunt Staff

Billy Barrett: I saw a preview of Islands in November, which was prefaced by director Omar Elerian explaining that the company was experimenting with different material each night of the run. So I wasn’t that surprised by the show’s lack of clarity and its rambling narrative(s) – which both its champions and naysayers have indicated remain now it’s playing at the Bush (although apparently parts of it have changed quite a bit). I thought it was great fun – for the first hour at least – but I did feel frustrated by those multiple, seemingly unrelated strands, the show’s considerable length and the fact that I obviously didn’t learn anything about offshore tax evasion. I think Stewart’s right to suggest this reaction has a lot to do with the way in which the show’s been marketed and described by its makers; I definitely expected a similar format to Caroline Horton’s last project Mess, which very much set out what it was “about” (anorexia) within the show, and self-reflexively presented itself as an attempt to theatrically respond to research and autobiographical material. It was a stunningly wrought yet entirely accessible piece, bordering on theatre-in-education in its straightforwardness.

But what Horton and her cast are doing here is much more challenging and complex than if they had staged a transparent dramatisation of their research, complete with numbers and figures – and it’s all the more interesting for it. As spectators to their epic feast of filth, we’re forced to actively engage with and attempt to decode the show’s myriad biblical, political and scatological signs, considering how they might shed light on its supposed subject matter. The shit’s a really interesting one, for example – there’s definitely a comparison to be made between Island‘s gruesome sewage-scape and the skid-marked cabaret performers of GETINTHEBACKOFTHEVAN’s No 1. The Plaza, a show about “entitlement, property and privacy” that gives a whole new meaning to the term “scat singing”. But is there actually something deliberately radical in Islands’invitation for the audience to find meaning in chaos and excess, or am I being overly generous and letting its makers off the hook for downright incoherence?

Annegret Marten: There is certainly a fair amount of criticism that could be levelled at Islands. It’s a bit messy, yes. It’s a bit long, alright. I wasn’t actually offered a cherry, how rude. I don’t however think that incoherence is a valid one. On the contrary. Considering the moral swamp it concerns itself with the show is unmistakably clear what it is about, how it is structured, and what its moral stance is.

The very direct (and constant) reference point of tax havens might actually be somewhat in the way of opening up a rather beguiling allegorical space. This is something Andrew Haydon hints at in his review, too. The real strength, I would argue, is its very productive messiness which encourages the invitation Billy mentions about creating meaning between the fake blood showers and glittery scrotums. The messiness is so pervasive because of the subject matter it draws from. That doesn’t mean that all pieces tackling complicated issues should be let off the hook when it comes to lack of structural rigour and unwieldiness but here I thought it was justified and earned. Did I learn more about tax havens than that they are just bad? Yes, of course and the show finds very effective images, too. A game show-style crab arithmetic illustrated the absurdity of money lending practices. A glowing plastic doll holds the voice of an ineffective tax dodger prosecutor and a disconcerting drag act clarifies the sickening power mechanisms that lead to austerity measures. It’s quite literally farcical.

And one might not find it elegantly solved but the whole show actually does follow narrative logic; in the second half even announces its structure with the use of the bull parable beforehand. I thought that Belarus Theatre’s The Price of Money , a show that didn’t shy away from using codified or sexualised imagery, lacked cohesion to a much greater degree jumping back and forth between topic matters as it did and without offering any of the rich humour. The style chosen for the topic was deemed inappropriate by some critics and I can see how using the carnivalesque approach of buffoonery upending all the social norms when discussing tax havens, a real life absurdity where rules of moral and social responsibility are already wrongfully suspended, can stand in the way of creating a truly transparent satire. However, judging from the frequent belly laughs I got the impression that the audience (no noticeable walkouts on the night I was there) were generally rather amused by the toilet humour.

Caroline Horton

Caroline Horton in Islands

Stewart Pringle: I was planning to start by bringing up another thing, another thing I think is good, that Islands reminded me of. But actually I’ve done quite a bit of that already and I’m aware that after a while it looks a bit like protesting too much. ‘Don’t say this is shit, this is like this other thing that feels faintly beyond the reach of criticism, or at least the scope of a response.’ So I think it’s probably important to be more personal than that, and talk about (ugh) ‘feelings’.

I think Islands is consistently, almost relentlessly, entertaining. It’s got some great jokes and some awful jokes that are great anyway, and it’s performed beautifully. Its structure is diffuse and doesn’t feel particularly permanent, except that it builds to a horrendous climax that has real lasting power. I can’t think of many images that I’ve seen in the past few years that made me want to close my eyes or look away as much as Eve’s return to Haven, or the miming of her rape.

It didn’t teach me anything about anything, but I don’t go to the theatre to be taught very often. Last time someone tried to teach me something in a theatre it was Chris Rapley and that made me want to swallow my own tongue so I’ve learned my lesson there. If anything, I’d say it ‘moved me politically’. It deepened feelings I already hold, it was galvanising rather than informative. When a play makes you feel sad, it’s not usual to question what the new information was that made you feel that way. So, what did you learn about losing a loved one today? That it fucking hurts? Thought so. Well I didn’t learn anything about the powerful, or where they hide their money. I didn’t learn how to feel about them. Hated them then, hate them now. But now I hate them a bit better, I hate them a bit deeper.

Oh, and the good thing was Hell, by the way, or rather Fucking Hell, by Jake & Dinos Chapman. More buffoonery of filth and murder. More excess. More monotony, too, I guess. Except when I walked around that weird swastika of vitrines I didn’t feel bored. I felt mirthy, at first, and then I felt a bit angry, and then I felt really, really sad. That’s ‘cos it’s good art. And so is Islands.

Fucking Hell by the Chapman Brothers

Fucking Hell by the Chapman Brothers

Catherine Love: Seeing as you’ve brought up feeling, Stewart, I’ll continue in that line of thought (or, er, feeling). Yes, given the way in which Islands was framed in advance, I was expecting more “about” tax havens. But that alone wouldn’t have been an insurmountable problem as an audience member if it did something for me on the level of feeling or politics – or perhaps the feeling of politics. Frustratingly, it didn’t.

I went into Islands already feeling pretty damn furious about tax havens. Let’s be honest, most people going to see the show at the Bush are probably already angry about tax havens. And Islands itself is obviously spitting mad (quite literally) about its subject matter. For me, though, that anger didn’t quite translate. Unlike Stewart, I didn’t find it galvanising. If anything, the show deflated the anger that I brought to it; the ending in particular, which I’m still trying to decide what I think of, left me feeling helpless rather than inflamed.

Of course, that’s an entirely personal reaction. But there are still two questions I have about Islands‘ approach. The first is borrowed from Andrew’s response, which suggests really interestingly – and in a way that got me thinking – that the show might have done better not to name its target and instead function as pure allegory. If the aim is to make us feel something about the horrendous state of things, then wouldn’t it be better to drop the “information” angle entirely?

My second question is about the positioning of the audience. There is of course a desire to offend us, as the piece itself openly acknowledges, but the precise nature of that confrontation feels unclear. Are we meant to be complicit in this system, or are we standing in as the majority being liberally shat on by the tiny, super-rich minority? To me it felt as though Islands kind of wanted to do both. And if we are the victims of the shitstorm here, I wonder how much that really achieves. I think Andrzej Lukowski nails it in his recent blog when he asks “to what exact end?” That’s what I’m still struggling to work out.

Alice Saville: In response to Catherine, I actually like this piece’s information angle. The marketing is faintly misleading, yes: “an ink black comedy about tax havens” sounds like something you’d go to after squawking at MP’s expenses in The Duck House on the West End, and there’s nothing about clowns or physical theatre, let alone human shit, in the show description. But Caroline Horton’s research process shows. Eve’s loss of innocence is a chaotic torrent of informed fury, like she’s binged on political blogs and bad cider.

The scene that felt most directly political was the one where the tax havenites band together in a parody of austerity, heads down and flack-helmets on, as the recession bites. It reminded me of the uneasiness of seeing the “Keep Calm and Carry On” poster turned twee instead of Orwellian sinister, encouraging home baking and brews as much as unresistant compliance. We the audience are complicit and victims at the same time, which is part of their heist.

Michael Billington criticised the show for missing “an open goal”. But although it does take aim at more specific targets towards the end, the bulk of this play is less knockabout satire, more an artistic response to tax havens. They’re not an open goal, they’re a cesspit. As the show’s notes also tell us: “Oxfam estimate that there is $18.5 trillion siphoned out of the world economy into tax havens by wealthy individuals alone. Christian Aid has calculated that 1,000 children die every day as a result of tax evasion.”

The Royal Court’s 2071 tried the strategy of simply lecturing through such terrifying statistics, and as Stewart says, it was boring. This production goes for the mythos around them: the self-castigating austerity logic which sells us the idea that people with more money are just better. It’s camp carnival of horrors takes all the class-loaded disgust in descriptions like “scroungers” or “parasites”, mixes it with glitter and fires it at the super-rich. It turns naff stock images of cocktail umbrellas, palm trees, and big gold piggy banks into a cosmology of tax havens that’s childish and monstrous at the same time. Sometimes it’s boring, sometimes it’s offensive, and sometimes it’s bloodcurdlingly nasty. But at least it’s no agitprop train pulling into the station to stir us up into an angry united mob: you earn your own anger, whether you choose aim it at Mary, tax havens, theatrical boredom or rippling farts.

Seiriol Davies in Islands.

Seiriol Davies in Islands.

Andrew Haydon:  The image of those fucking Keep Calm and Carry On posters makes for a surprisingly tidy metaphor for modern Britain. Designed as mass produced public information during WWII, it’s almost too funny that they emerge ubiquitous right on cue for this massive financial crisis, except this time round you have to buy your own: if you want to be reminded to stay calm in late-capitalism, then you’d better invest in your own reminder and not rely on the state. Islands is the burlesque show of this bleak joke at our expense.In revolutionary France, the opposition to the monarchy apparently produced pornography featuring Marie Antoinette and other leading royals in order to slander them, eroding their authority and claims to legitimacy.

It strikes me that this show usefully performs two similar functions; it highlights that the rich are laughable while reminding us that UK society seems to spend most of its time laughing at the poor and aspiring to be wealthy.It’s a measure of the show’s success that it is already the year’s most talked about piece of theatre, that whatever people thought of it, they can’t quite put it down, or stop returning again and again to its upsetting images (particularly the rape and the bull-fight).

Perhaps my review’s original focus on clowning and vulgarity was wrong; maybe it’s really the horror and sinister undertow that ultimately stay with you. This is why it’s powerful: because it goes a long way beyond mere exploration of tax havens (I’m sure Philip Fisher could bore Michael with all the facts he wanted to know in private). Islands is a picture of what Britain has become, and a demonstration of why keeping calm and carrying on is no longer an option.

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