21 February 2018.
“Do you like surprises?” she asks. “How would I know?” replies Lucian.
The two of them are on a circle of sand, the size of a living room carpet. It’s a tropical island or so they say. But how much can we trust what they tell us or even what they reveal to each other? On the face of it, Lucian has suffered a serious head trauma and can remember nothing of who he is. A woman approaches him for his autograph and gradually she begins to tell stories about who he is (or was). I’m not sure if we ever discover the woman’s real name, so let’s call her the narrator.
Nothing can be taken at face value. Initially it seems Lucian is a celebrity who has been attacked by a thug but then new layers are added to the story and the truthfulness of what he recalls seems fragile.
At first, it has the quality of a game – wordplay, teasing, jokes and even the odd knowing wink to the contrived nature of the situation. “This isn’t Shakespeare” Lucian is told, when he suggests a ghostly vision of himself might be his twin.
Set in an oddly barren place, it’s an island bereft of tropical greenery, an incongruous white plastic chair the only feature. Five columns of gauze-like fabric enclose the tightly defined performance space and serve as a canvas for Will Monks’ moody lighting and intricate projections. The narrator always has one eye on the clock, time is seemingly running out for the characters and potentially for us. In a similar vein, distress signals and the whoosh of incoming tides can be heard in the ominous enveloping soundtrack.
When they notice an iceberg on the ocean, the narrative darkens and Lucian’s memories gradually resurface. “We clung to you in difficult times“, the narrator tells him. He played a role in a bigger brutal story.
On an island inhabited by sleep-walkers and worried insomniacs, secret plans are hatched under cover of darkness, fleets of boats take to the sea and kingdoms lie trapped beneath sheets of ice. The writing references elements of ancient fables but it’s an allegory for our times. A cautionary tale featuring a charismatic politician armed with populist slogans, a climate of fear and a growing sense of insularity and intolerance.
To some extent, when that central thread is pieced together and reaches its merciless conclusion, it feels disappointingly simplistic. However worthy the message, however cleverly conveyed it, it’s a broad brush moral saga and Lucian isn’t the only person who experiences a heavy-handed bludgeoning. Allusions to other themes, such as the pollution of the planet and competition for scare resources, crop up but are never really developed.
Director Malaika Cunningham’s blurry, fractured approach is most effective in considering the impacts of the events on individuals, and how they deal with the consequences. Characters have an elusive quality, they change. The autograph hunter becomes a worried insomniac. A scapegoater finds themselves blamed for the consequences of what they set in motion. How reliable is our narrator? Has Lucian (if that is even his name) chosen to try to forget something too terrible to remember? In the fractured first half, there are a few moments when Lucian is suddenly alone and carries on a conversation with just himself – is the whole thing the imaginings of his guilt-ridden, tortured mind? Are people the product of the stories they choose to tell about themselves?
Writer Joe W’s pacey, purposeful script is deliberately lean but finds room for passages of rich imagery and bursts of absurd humour. Nicola Blackwell (Lucian) and Rose Gray (the narrator) steer us expertly through the show’s shifting sands – seamlessly managing the many and sudden changes in mood, perspective and dynamics.
This desert island disconcerts – it asks us to sharpen our vision in a world where most people are walking around with their eyes closed. There’s a pervading sense of foreboding. Cassandra-like, the narrator warns her fellow islanders, “we are on the outskirts of a large event“. Perhaps, it’s implied, we are too.
Images by Joanna Higson.