We’re sitting in what feels like the subterranean lower deck of a ship, backs against the wall. Everything is aquamarine, from the stage floor to the walls to the seat covers, that sort of bright green-blue colour an imagined ocean might be, when the real sea is rougher, blacker, bleaker. In the centre of the small theatre studio, painted bright red and on a short pedestal, is a small model of a Portuguese caravel, a sturdy little sailing ship with billowing sails that was used in the 15th and 16th centuries in the age of western exploration. And like the journeys of Portuguese explorers Bartolomeu Dias or the Corte-Real family, The Unknown Island is less about what its seafarers set out to find, but what they discover in the end.
The Unknown Island is a religiously faithful adaptation of Portuguese Nobel Prize winner Jose Saramago’s beautiful and shape-shifting short story, The Tale of the Unknown Island (1997). A man knocks on a king’s door and asks for a boat, defying the king’s fortress of bureaucracy. The palace’s cleaning woman is enthralled by the idea of adventure. Then the story takes some deliberate left turns: where is the unknown island that the man seeks, and will he ever get there without a crew and no knowledge of the sea? The resolute man isn’t quite as resolute when he realises he’s getting what he wants. As Saramago’s deceptively simple parable begins to unfurl, a tale of a man’s reckless pursuit of a dream evolves into a very different creature, burrowing into the man’s actual dream as he falls asleep and journeying through the lands of his subconscious as the buds of romance and self-discovery begin to bloom.
Ellen McDougall, the new artistic director of the Gate, relies on a very, very slightly edited original literary text – the 1999 English translation by longtime Saramago translator Margaret Jull Costa. In her reverence for the text, McDougall divides up Saramago’s long, sinewy sentences among an ensemble of four performers in her attempt to retain the breathless rhythms of the short story, with its cascades of run-on sentences typical of Saramago’s writing as the ensemble’s voices double, overlap, fade away and re-emerge. Performers Thalissa Teixeira and Jon Foster are particularly compelling storytellers, who keep the tale afloat even in stasis, while taking care to deliver the funniest moments of Saramago’s wry, self-reflexive narrator without sending the delicate humour overboard. But then there’s the question of how literal a stage adaptation can be in conjuring up the heavy symbolism and imagery in Saramago’s folkloric work. How closely does one hew to the text, and how far can – or should – one stray in remaking it for a different form?
McDougall chooses first to err on the side of content over form, but striving to keep Saramago’s literary voice alive and complete on stage means the first half of the one-hour play drags its feet, as the performers charge valiantly through reams of text – text that goes quickly on the page with Saramago’s relentless sentences, and less quickly on stage. It’s an almost slavish adherence, but it pays off eventually; with the careful exposition done, the pace picks up when McDougall starts to take more risks with the action on stage. She draws on the foundations she’s built with oral folk conventions of storytelling and communality, coaxes us into a cozy picnic complete with wine and bread that breaks the gulf between actor and spectator as everyone in the room partakes of this informal communion, then tosses us into an absolute riot of a dream sequence that doesn’t take itself too seriously, rewards the patient, and is utterly transporting.
There’s a point during the search for this unknown island, as Hannah Ringham’s voice fills out the corners of the small first-floor studio and the story’s caravel bobs in the harbour, where I close my eyes and imagine her words washing over me and the audience members on either side, all of us unknown islands, sitting shoulder to shoulder and elbows barely touching, with such rivers and oceans to cross in-between.
The Unknown Island is at the Gate Theatre until October 7th. For more details, click here.