Edinburgh Fringe 2013
Two people, trapped on a desert island that was once Britain. Supplies are running low, humanity is lost, and Marilyn and Josie don’t get on at all well. Quirk Productions are a young company founded at Durham University presenting a new drama by Dom Riley at C Nova.
Island State is a new two-hander from Dom Riley, a young playwright hailing from Durham University, where Quirk Productions was founded in 2011. In it, we are plunked down on a desert island with Josie and Marilyn, two young women who have managed to find themselves the last living souls in Britain (and, who knows, maybe the world). As the water level creeps up and supplies get low, the pair philosophize, play games, and increasingly get under one another’s skin. The writing is good, the tech minimal, and the performances (delivered by Grace Cheatle and Jess Groocock) lively and quirky. This is decent student drama that’s accessible, flirts with danger, and has the potential to be truly affecting, if it doesn’t quite hit the mark in this staging.
All the pieces are there for this to be a disturbing, even harrowing, experience – there are deep undercurrents beneath the surface of Island State: existentialism, human selfishness, unbridled violence, and the preservation of self. These are truly exceptional circumstances – the world has ended in floods of biblical proportions, the entire human race reduced to two young girls. And intellectually, Island State gets there. The ideas are all present in the text – the lengths one person will go to in order to survive, the inevitable mourning for a world that’s lost, and the seemingly innate human struggle for power no matter how micro the cosm. And Cheatle and Groocock are good actors; one gets the sense that they’d be willing to take us to the darkest places, but there’s something missing, a depth of experience, perhaps, or a ‘having been pushed’. Two people, minus the restrictions and niceties of a larger society, might be willing to go to any lengths. There’s a seething violence just beneath the surface that wants out but doesn’t quite break the surface. There are moments of physical altercation in the text which are entirely appropriate to the situation, but the staging of which feels a bit too polite, too restrained for the extreme situation Josie and Marilyn are in.
The performance is punctuated by bits of grainy black and white projection – visions of a Britain swallowed by the sea – accompanied by plaintive pop songs. And while these moments occasionally break the narrative unnecessarily, they do help to create atmosphere. Nevertheless, one questions their place. This is a drama that’s all about stripping things back to bare bones, society, human relationships, structures of power, and the performers are strong enough for the drama to stand on their shoulders alone. Media interludes offer us a break, a chance to distance ourselves from the discomfort we experience in the presence of such antipathy. But what Island State wants more than anything is to build this sense of dread. To increase the tension until we feel our nerves stretched tight as piano wires, to scrape against our soft bellies and leave us feeling as raw and desperate as our heroines must surely feel.
Island State came out of Durham University where it picked up a few awards (best new writing, best actresses) before making its way to the Fringe. This is an interesting piece of drama because it’s in a formative stage – it could go anywhere, and with a company as ambitious and enthusiastic as Quirk, it seems likely to. While Island State doesn’t quite hit the mark it’s aiming for, it’s worth keeping an eye on this company.