tue 29/09/2020

Islands, Bush Theatre | reviews, news & interviews

Islands, Bush Theatre

Islands, Bush Theatre

New show about offshore tax havens is luridly absurdist, but the end result is deeply tedious

Vivid satire: Caroline Horton, Hannah Ringham and John Biddle in ‘Islands’Bill Knight for theartsdesk

Sometimes the deadliest violence is silent. The publicity for Caroline Horton’s new absurdist satire, Islands, points out that Oxfam estimates that some $18.5 trillion is siphoned out of the world economy into tax havens by wealthy individuals. That’s some nest egg! Likewise, Christian Aid has calculated that 1,000 children die every day as a result of tax evasion. As we know, the super-rich one per cent own most of global wealth. Dreadful. Clearly unjust.

Sometimes the deadliest violence is silent. The publicity for Caroline Horton’s new absurdist satire, Islands, points out that Oxfam estimates that some $18.5 trillion is siphoned out of the world economy into tax havens by wealthy individuals. That’s some nest egg! Likewise, Christian Aid has calculated that 1,000 children die every day as a result of tax evasion. As we know, the super-rich one per cent own most of global wealth. Dreadful. Clearly unjust. But what can theatre do about it?

Well, until recently, the most common tactic was verbatim theatre – as in David Hare’s The Power of Yes – but this has recently been superceded by a more absurdist and fantastical approach, as in Clare Duffy’s Money: The Game Show. This is also Horton’s way: a piece that she devised with her company of actors, Islands is partly a Brechtian polemic, partly an Ubu-esque nightmare, partly cabaret – with some madly jazzy songs – partly game show and partly a party.

Behind the clowning of the show there is the distant sound of weeping

It denounces the immorality of tax havens, with their luxury lifestyles for a few high-net-worth individuals, and argues that “violent aggression towards the rest of the world is hidden beneath offshore’s facade of respectable business”. The massive human costs of the activities of the super-rich come at us, dripping blood and gore. Behind the clowning of the show there is the distant sound of weeping; far away from West London people are really suffering.

The tax haven is a cloud that floats above the rest of the world, and Mary is the key player in a place where bankers are gods, and have names such as Agent and Swill, and Mr and Mrs Ordinary are called Adam and Eve. The catechism is neo-con economics and, as in any Forced Entertainment show, people whisper into microphones about money-making, society and politics. Well, sort of. A highpoint is Mary’s description of a bullfight, a bloody symbol of the bull market.

Horton’s main aesthetic is based on bouffon performance (a Jacques Lecoq-style of mockery that uses slapstick and wild exaggeration to make its political points). In keeping with this style, the actors wear buffoonish costumes, fat and fleshy, or cross-dress in outrageous ambiguity. The set, designed by Oliver Townsend, is filthy, more like a squat than a tax haven, with shit stains, muddy patches and old mattresses. Cherries, which symbolise money, are scattered around and squashed underfoot.

The freewheeling text, which leaves plenty of space for clowning, chatting with the audience and songs, meanders through the story, where the real world is rechristened Shitworld. The language is filthy, and – as in Daniel Andersen’s Saxon Court – I found the constant scatalogical references soon becoming tedious in the extreme. The play’s supporters will delight in its silliness and squalour – I found the clowning unfunny and the shit jokes deeply tiresome.

Although the company conveys some of the vindictive aggression of unfettered capitalism, languidly mocking political protest and radical acts, I thought that the messy structure of the piece and the constant buffoonery both tiring and un-illuminating. Isn’t there something patronisingly didactic about dispensing a few nuggets of information to the blind masses? I felt that the imagination of the show got in the way of its anger, and blunted it.

As directed by Omer Elerian, the five-strong cast – Horton herself as Mary (pictured above right with Simon Startin), John Biddle (Agent), Seiriol Davies (Swill), Simon Startin (Adam) and Hannah Ringham (Eve) – are excellent. But I left the show feeling that this was a 30-minute sketch that has been stretched out to 110 minutes. To use its own metaphor, it is pretty shit.

The messy structure of the piece and the constant buffoonery are both tiring and un-illuminating

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