Islands by Caroline Horton showed at the Bush Theatre until 21 February. Described as an ink black comedy about tax havens, enormous greed, and the few who have it all, Sophie Partridge reflects on the play from a disability perspective.
When I saw Islands a few weeks back, I wasn't at all sure what I was in for. I'd read a bit of blurb and knew fellow performer Simon Startin was in it… but that was about all.
The piece opens with the five characters, including writer Caroline Horton as 'Little God Mary', wanting to create her own heaven / tax haven, along-side Adam and Eve. I was intrigued that Simon was ‘revealed’ to be Adam – the First Man. Surely this portrayal of such an archetype by a disabled performer was significant?
I wondered if the `impaired body' was pre or post coupling with Eve?! Was it also significant that the `impaired body' was in fact, that which was bared to all? Well, Adam's bum at least.
The script describes Adam as “a simple freelance gardener” and he, like the other characters, is coarse and direct. Islands is a wholly devised piece and according to Simon, “Adam was created in response to me!” emerging through the rehearsal process and being stuck on Shitworld, with aspirations to rise to the haven above: “Chaos ensues”.
Simon auditioned for China Plate after they approached Graeae Theatre Co, looking for a disabled actor, preferably with 'Bouffon' experience. In her introduction Caroline comments on the casts' “ability to be wickedly funny and foul, yet also epic and deeply political”.
With Adam as Simon puts it “It's all there!” His character has a slightly ethereal quality and this portrayal revisits that of the Wise Fool, often portrayed by disabled actors/ characters. The Bouffon aesthetic is about what Simon refers to as ‘Theatre of Appearance’ and a ‘tool to disturb’. Bouffon and disability it seems, go hand-in-hand.
As disabled performers/ actors, we work with bodily restrictions and this can often be what excludes us from the more naturalistic world of TV. However Bouffon is a theatre technique which allows for those restrictions to be incorporated into perfomance; permission almost for a disabled identity. This is a gift to a post-dramatic piece such as Islands, where the focus is not plot or dialogue, leaving scope instead for literal play between different elements such as song, lip-synced recorded pieces etc. to bring forth its themes.
This does however, leave Islands vulnerable to criticism. I enjoyed the `foolishness' of the first-half, for the aspects mentioned above plus a fair dose of crudeness. But there was a feeling that it was something to be got through, in order to get to the `sense' of the second half.
It's only then that Eve turns on her fellow Haven Dwellers, that we start to feel the conflict; it is also then that Adam, the only Crip on the Stage, slags off other Crips and assorted Arts Council award recipients in something of a `post-modern and ironic' twist!
Finally, it's also Adam who ‘drags up’ to sing of Austerity Measures, practically stealing the last cherry, which have been the tainted fruit of temptation throughout.