The Theatreguide.London Review
Bush Theatre January-February 2015
I have been an unabashed fan of playwright-actress Caroline Horton since her earliest Edinburgh Fringe appearances, but I fear that with her latest show she has come a cropper.
Ostensibly an analysis and criticism of international tax havens and corporate tax avoidance, Islands is an all-but-incomprehensible mess. An inventive mess, to be sure, and an occasionally amusing one, but created and presented in such an opaque private vocabulary that little is communicated.
Horton opens the play as a mad bag lady who, after some preliminary comic business, announces that she is in fact God. Along with a couple of assistant gods she creates a new Eden, an island that literally floats in the air, apart from the mucky world beneath.
They create an Adam and Eve to do the work, which consists largely of growing and amassing cherries, but eventually Eve rebels and departs, and the power keeping the island afloat wanes, threatening all the fun.
I should mention that all the characters are grotesques, visually a mix of circus clowns, George Grosz caricatures, French bouffon, Ubu Roi and Mr. Blobby, and that there's a lot of slapstick and broad clowning throughout.
You might have noticed that there's been no mention of tax avoidance yet, and indeed the subject isn't even hinted at until very late in the play, when an offstage voice makes the connection.
Up to then you just might sense a satiric allegory of some sort beneath the clowning, perhaps of exploitative Third World despots, venal religions or perhaps even money-grubbing bankers.
But until it is spelled out in the play's final moments, absolutely nothing beyond a credit in the published text to help from the Tax Justice Network would point you toward the playwright's intended interpretation. And so anything she has to say about the subject – any analysis, explanation, criticism, solution – either isn't there to begin with, or just doesn't come through.
(An inevitable comparison is to Lucy Prebble's Enron of a few seasons back, a play and production that used a lot of theatrical razzle-dazzle to explore a complex financial scandal, and succeeded in making it all clear and guiding us to understand and feel exactly what was evil about it while also telling human stories we could empathise with.)
How could this happen? How could playwright Horton, director Omar Elerian and a dedicated cast not notice that they were speaking a theatrical vocabulary so inaccessible to the audience?
Horton offers one hint in a note to the published text when she explains its gestation. After considerable research she wrote an overlong script, which the director and cast tried out, improvised around and refined down to a final text.
While this was undoubtedly fascinating as a creative process, it meant that they all wound up knowing much more about the subject, the characters and the symbolic meanings of everything than actually survived into the performance – that is to say, they knew things they weren't telling us, and didn't notice that they weren't telling us.
At any rate, there's a lot of theatrical inventiveness onstage, and a lot of hard work by the actors – Caroline Horton, John Biddle, Seiriol Davies, Hannah Ringham, Simon Startin – but, alas, almost none of it is in the service of anything beyond 'See how clever we are'.
I retain my admiration for Caroline Horton as both writer and performer and look forward to her next project, but I can't find any reason to recommend Islands.
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Review - Islands - Bush Theatre 2015