In an anonymous unit in an unknown land, three men keep watch. When the siren sounds, they must feed, water and observe the things in their care. They don’t know why. Those are The Orders and they’re paid well not to ask. But as the claustrophobic isolation and relentless monotony of their days takes its toll, their reality becomes insanity.
Even trying to summarise Nick Gill’s latest play feels like a distortion – an attempt to impose a narrative on something wilfully resistant to the notion. From the determinedly lower-case title to the characters’ namelessness (only the play-text tells you what they’re called), the proper nouns of ‘proper’ storytelling are cast into the wilderness.
Gill entered an early version of fiji land for a Protect the Human writing competition run by Amnesty International and campaigning theatre company iceandfire, shortly after the horrific details of the mistreatment of detainees in Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay had begun to emerge.
There’s a fascinating tension at the heart of the play’s close-palmed absurdism – a creative navigation of the real-life events that brought it into being. The majority of audiences likely to see fiji land are unlikely to be gun-toting advocates of torture and abuse. So how do you find a new path when the moral ground is so well covered?
Gill’s answer is to make the familiar strange. It’s a tactic he used grippingly in Sand at the Royal Court last summer. That play explored the development of the nuclear bomb via an alternate timeline in which the Nazis got there first. By changing the terms of history, it shed fresh light on the politically loaded language deployed by the media today.
And in fiji land? Pot plants. Instead of people, Grainer, Tanc and Wolstead are guarding pot plants. Seemingly in charge, Tanc occasionally – and without explanation – measures their leaves, orders that certain rows are left un-watered and takes some specimens away. It’s a purposefully surreal spectacle, which severs logic from action and sense from defence.
The plants are the metaphorical focus of a system that is massive, sprawling and shrouded in obsessive secrecy. There’s mention of a war and Tanc spouts vague generalities about the need for public safety, but in the final equation, this relentless process seems to exist simply because it does. It feels all too real in its absurd arbitrariness, creepy in its ramifications.
The all-encompassing chill of this worldview defeats even Matthew Trevannion’s breezy Wolstead. Initially he seems better equipped to deal with their situation than Jake Ferretti’s volatile Grainer, talking of the chain of consequences leading from IBM’s wartime profiteering to the commercial imperatives of defence budgets. But even a cynic needs a rationale.
The presence of the plants shifts the focus squarely on to the men keeping watch, their blankness an unsparing mirror for humanity at its ugliest. As the three pass their days in a mind-numbing tedium of card-games and scratchy mutual dislike, a kind of reverse de-humanisation happens. With no other outlet, they pour their frustrations into the plants.
This isn’t – because it can’t be – about personal dislike. It’s a chilling insight into alienation: ignorance, boredom and anger in need of a face to punch. As the increasingly stir-crazy Grainer, Jake Ferretti’s taunting of one water-deprived row is the start of an abuse of the plants that calls forth the photos and stories of degradation to come out of Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo.
This is an unnerving and arresting idea (and image) but thinly stretched, particularly in the early scenes. Gill’s toughly funny writing is bruising but the production meanders too long over the set-up. Sudden blackouts and ominous music strive for an escalating tension at odds with director Alice Malin’s choppy pacing.
Essentially, fiji land shows its hand for too long before playing it. But when it does, a pretty nightmarish atmosphere is conjured up, with Stephen Bisland’s Tanc stalking silently between the plants, masturbating with his face buried in their leaves or abruptly and violently scattering them across the floor. His disconnect is complete.
The final third of the play fractures almost in two, juxtaposing Tanc’s looming presence with arterially red farce. A freezing Wolstead goes to desperate lengths to get warm while a delirious Grainer sweats profusely on the other side of the room; an igloo pops up and an eyeball pops out in bright splash of blood.
The effect is like a shot in the arm, with fiji land hurtling wildly towards its Polaroid-captured conclusion. Sometimes the play seems to lose sight of itself, with its differing elements jostling for attention; and it doesn’t say anything fundamentally new about human rights abuses. But it’s still a richly imaginative, darkly witty and at times unsettling experience.
Read the Exeunt interview with Nick Gill.