When fascism’s in vogue, who wouldn’t want an escape to a deserted island? The 1930s Scottish isle of David Greig’s drama doesn’t offer many comforts; the temperatures are shiver-inducing and the diet consists of puffin and kale. But sitting at some distance from a society on the brink of World War II, the island’s main attraction is the perspective it bestows.
In Greig’s 2002 play – seen in a timely revival by Sugarglass Theatre – two ornithologists arrive to catalogue the local bird colonies. Robert (Leonard Buckley) is an eccentric obsessed with Darwinism. John (Peter Corboy) is fussily polite and restrained. Together, they form a rivalry between natural selection and edification, with the local wildlife backing up each case. But when the island’s leaseholder suddenly dies, their views are able to manifest themselves on a grander scale.
In a battle between nature and nurture, director Marc Atkinson’s searching production takes us right to the source; the centrepiece of Colm McNally’s set is a mystical well, recalling life’s beginnings. Such symbolism suggests that Greig’s spiralling arguments are to find their crux at the level of fable. Yet even Lester St. Louis and Lara Gallagher’s live cello and piano are in discord, emphasising instead the drum-beats of a more primal nature.
Despite the constant butting of heads, it’s impressively hard to find a character proven wrong in Greig’s play. Robert suspects the island as a test site for an anthrax attack, and mobilises to protect it, but with such lawlessness that it concerns John. The local resident, Mr Kirk (Karl O’Neill), meanwhile, has his puritanical rants against paganism confirmed. His niece Ellen (Maeve O’Mahony), who inspires a love triangle with the two visitors, instead forges her own fantasy of having both men, sending the production into a fever of bacchanalia.
As good as the arguments are, they don’t always have the performances to match. O’Mahony’s Ellen is a strange heroine conscious of her own remaking, but she barely evokes the oppression needed to drive her transformation. Nor does Buckley’s Robert find pathos while agonising about leaving the island. Most malleable is Corboy’s John, a soul tormented by instability and desire who, understandably, gives into both.
If no one’s in the wrong, then Greig is saying we need a balance on all sides, a place for personal liberation and civil moralism, sexual freedoms and social responsibility. Such a land made in Man and Woman’s own image could be quite the place, especially when civilization isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.
Outlying Islands is on until 2 September 2017 at the Samuel Beckett Theatre, Dublin. Click here for more details.