Two weeks, two shows about the grimy underside of capitalism, two bullfight metaphors. Bull, Mike Bartlett’s cutthroat dance of competition between employees facing the chop, embodies the bloody sport in its very form, depicting two corporate matadors at their most deadly. In Islands, the tax haven satire devised by Caroline Horton and her company, there’s an extended riff on the same theme. “Mankind’s extraordinary,” Horton concludes her gory description of the ritual, “don’t you think?”
But where Bull is all brutality, Islands is all display. Horton and co’s mucky allegory speaks a visual language of grotesque, glittering excess – an apt enough, if not particularly subtle, vision of the tax-dodging economic elite, who have pumped an estimated $18.5 trillion into tax havens. Despite all the research that has gone into the piece, Islands’ approach is not a documentary one. Instead, it mashes up cabaret, satire and bouffon, casting Horton as a grinningly repulsive god lording over Haven, an island that has broken free of the blighted ‘Shitworld’ below. Along for the ride are gurning sidekicks Agent and Swill and aspirational proles Adam and Eve (geddit?), all intent on protecting their hoard from the outreached hand of the taxman.
If the synopsis sounds baffling, it’s no less perplexing in performance. There’s certainly an argument that money has achieved the status of a deity in the 21st century, with capitalism as the new global religion, but aside from that not-so-shocking insight, Horton’s Biblical references gain little purchase (pun intended). As the all-powerful Mary, Horton herself more resembles the fickle, guzzling gods of ancient Greek mythology, feasting on cherries and indulging in the endless pursuit of pleasure. The ‘fall’ that Adam and Eve experience from this superficial land of bliss, meanwhile, is a decidedly topsy-turvy one.
The metaphors Islands seizes on to make its points are just as confused as its central conceit. Some, like the cherries that Mary hoards, are powerful on their own. They of course stand in for money – everyone wants a piece of the cherry pie – but they also suggest forbidden fruit, loss of innocence (“popping your cherry”), and their punctured flesh drips like blood. Elsewhere, though, imagination comes at the expense of any coherence. It’s all as clear as the muck that surges up from below, mixing religion, gameshow, cabaret, bullfight and, of course, relentless waves of scatalogical humour. After a while, shit jokes are just shit.
As sheer aesthetic, Islands can be briefly, grubbily captivating. Oliver Townsend’s design is gorgeous in a squalid, gaudy kind of way, his sunken swimming pool set suggesting the filth and emptiness sitting just beneath the fantasy of escape, while the talented cast revel in the grotesquerie. But it all seems to obscure rather than illuminate. Reality – in the voices of Thatcher and her present day spawn – intrudes only in splintered fragments, so small as to just enhance the bewilderment of those not already clued up on the subject matter.
There’s more promise in the closing scenes, when it becomes sickeningly clear that even the fallout of economic crisis will leave Mary and her cronies unsullied by the shitstorm down below. Realising they’ve got away with it, Haven’s inhabitants tentatively call for something to “mark the occasion”. What starts out as modest self-congratulation quickly escalates into unbridled gluttony and hedonism – champagne, hookers, “a really small private jet”. There’s no one to stop them.
The trouble is, even in moments like this, the irony and glitter are spread so thick that the critique struggles to peek through. The anger that is the only conceivable response to the situation absurdly depicted by Horton and her cast is finally allowed to break the surface but is itself undermined, leaving few directions available. There’s half an eye throughout on the audience – the people – but our complicity is only cursorily courted. In the end rage, instead of boiling, cools to a sort of helplessness.