The Unknown Island (Online review)

The Unknown Island (Online review)

The tiny Gate Theatre currently has two online offerings. I watched one, Suzy Storck, a few weeks ago and found it fascinating. I’m sorry to say that I found The Unknown Island rather less engaging but think that was almost entirely down to needing to be present in the room. This brief play (55 minutes) is based on novelist Jose Saramago’s short story, The Tale Of The Unknown Island, and adapted for the stage by director Ellen McDougall and dramaturg Clare Slater. It’s interesting that the first three words of the original title have been omitted for, if anything, they are the most important; this is definitely a play about the attraction and power of storytelling.

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The four performers act as both narrators and characters though the fluidity of the production ensures that they constantly switch roles – sometimes mid paragraph – so that all of them get to play the enigmatic hero, the king and so on. Potentially confusing, it actually isn’t and gives the production a USP it would otherwise lack. For there is an awful lot of narrative to get through and assigning this to just one of the quartet would seriously have unbalanced the production. It also cleverly demonstrates how the oral tradition of story telling is passed from person to person and that there are as many ways to relate a narrative as there are people to relate it. In essence the story is very simple. The hero wants to take a voyage to find an island that has never been seen before (one must exist somewhere) and requests the king to give him a ship. He embarks on the journey with just one companion, the king’s cleaning lady (!) and they gradually form a close relationship. If I’m making it all sound like an adult version of Jackanory, then that’s probably not a bad comparison but as a play it lacks dramatic tension and there’s very little hint of conflict. Given that it is faithful recreation of the original that is only to be expected but it did make for a rather soporific experience and I must admit I did nearly nod off at one point…. maybe that was (almost) mission accomplished (?)

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The tale is very simply staged with minimal use of props and only perfunctory use of costumes – the piece is totally concentrated on the power of the spoken language. However, in the last twenty minutes this changes as things become more visually arresting. Following a short section in darkness in which the narrative continues just like a bedtime story, lights return to reveal a technicolour setting with a dream like quality. The main additional element of balloons (apparently something of a consistent trope with the director) reinforces this. It stands in contrast to the simplicity of the first two thirds but it’s all a bit too late in the day to really claw back interest. Lighting (Lizzie Powell) is used to good effect particularly when a large window is opened and daylight (reality?) streams in.

The actors (Jon Foster, Hannah Ringham, Thalissa Teixeira – particularly watchable – and Zubin Varla) work closely together and come across as a team rather than individuals. They pass the narrative and character batons comfortably between them and, as with all good story telling, engage directly with the audience who are seated around the perimeter of the room. Occasionally the quartet sit among the audience and in one section share bread, wine and olives which echoes the communality of the shared experience. However, this unscripted picnic goes on for a good five minutes and while it might (indeed it almost certainly does) work in the context of a live performance it sucked out any energy from the piece on video. A severe case of “you really had to be there”.

Production photos by Cameron Slater

The Unknown Island is available on You Tube. Click here

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