FringeReview UK 2019
David Greig’s 2002 Outlying Islands is revived at the King’s Head Theatre by Atticist Theatre Company directed by its co-founder Jessica Lazar. With set and costumes by Anna Lewis, lighting by David Doyle and sound by Christopher Preece and movement by Jennifer Fletcher. Till February 2nd.
In a blustery January, perhaps it’s good to be reminded how ferocious the weather can be even in June, in the Outer Hebrides. David Greig’s 2002 Outlying Islands though bleaches away far more than the traditional props of civilisation, here reduced to one table, in his scouring exploration of the psyche stripped bare of trappings. It’s like whistling through bones. And never being dry. It’s strange to think this flint-bright play, glinting with possibility, is nearly twenty years old.
Outlying Islands is revived at the King’s Head Theatre by Atticist Theatre Company directed by its co-founder Jessica Lazar fresh from her triumph with this company in Berkoff’s East, nominated for five Offies.
Atmosphere in this diminutive space is crucial too. Anna Lewis delivers a simple Bothie set – table, stove, door and warped lintel stage left, all sea-fed and torqued; and a space upstage right where mountains crouch in wait for miracles. Lewis provides the contrasting holiday-don and islander costumes too.
David Doyle’s lighting is crucial. It brings facets of bright and dark divided in a northern June sharp as cuttlefish. But there’s a darkroom scene with red light and ounces of stygian gloom. When someone stands in the lintel their faces blade with light. The whole experience is of thresholds crossed, boundaries dissolved. Outlying Islands is a magical play threatened with anthrax.
Sound by Christopher Preece felicitously draws in bird calls including a chick nesting in a box and its sudden parent; as well as wind howling in storms. There’s other music too including a Hebridean song at the start and finish, but it’s those natural sounds one treasures. Movement by Jennifer Fletcher in this space has to contain boisterous male energy and of course stillness.
Greig’s starting point was a real Robert and John and the latter’s 1995 Island Going written sixty years after the event, dealing with how two Oxford ornithologists mapped the outlying islands. Greig’s moved this ornithological tale on by four years threading it with darker moments as war looms.
Ken Drury’s Ian Kirk and his niece Ellen (Rose Wardlaw) host two Cambridge researchers: roistering patrician Robert (Tom Machell) and Jack McMillan’s naïve but empathic Edinburgh-born John, in their ‘Ministry’ (i.e. government) sponsored ornithological survey. It’s virgin habitat and Leach’s fork-tailed petrel might finally be photographed. But as Kirk divulges after inventory taking – his manipulation of expenses is a delight – and much more whisky, the Ministry have told him an unpleasant secret, one he fully intends to capitalise on. It’s not the locals who want to preserve this island, with its annual grazing rights. It’s Robert. Even John prepares to join the RAF. Robert soon plans to stay.
We open with a warped door Kirk orders the trusting John to smash open then charges the Ministry for its repair. Early bustle – boyish leaping about, Kirk’s dour amusement and condemnation of the old pagan chapel – settle around the quiet watchfulness of Ellen.
Robert’s risk-taking – he almost blasts them with gallons of paraffin poured on a fire, after flattening John under the door – seems part the gambling entitlement of his old now ruined family where a grandfather lost half Hertfordshire gaming. It throbs beneath his brilliant apprehension of everything around him. Machell’s clean-cut compelling take on Alpha-ness leaps on every occasion as an opportunity.
Whilst Robert’s character thus identifies with a rather primal-feudal take on Darwinism, an almost sociopathic disregard for others like Kirk and sexually, Ellen, John’s virginal hesitancies coalesce round quietism. McMillan takes everything soft-grained, with an unexpected toughness. Unwilling to even compete, he proves a friend to Ellen.
It’s Ellen though, in a superbly contained wry portrayal by Wardlaw, who proves she knows exactly what she wants from both men. Indeed Ellen’s refusal to take conventional routes shapes the way this drama progresses to magic realism. Already sinning in her uncle’s eyes in her love of cinema, especially Laurel and Hardy, she decides both men are Laurel too. And this is, as Kirk’s pointed out, a pagan chapel.
Greig inverts any obvious conflicts. Robert’s extreme rationalism merely thinks it’s rational. Ellen unlike her heathen-hating uncle, knows she’s a pagan and infinitely more lucid than anyone.
Unabashed by Robert’s photograph of her bathing naked she commands John to gaze at it. And when it comes to arranging send-offs The Tale of the Lonesome Pine – you’ll have to see why – shows how funny yet visionary Greig manages to be at once. Try finding that in any other play!
There’s marvellous, even mystical scenes elsewhere. And an extraordinary denouement. When Drury takes a further, different role and the play ends in a flutter of question marks.
The King’s Head proves ideal for the almost claustrophobic Bothie, but those stranger scenes ideally need more space to take flight. Amongst an exemplary cast, this is yet another arena where Wardlaw’s presence etches another dimension as she extends her hands or stills the action. She’s both rapt and compelling, comic and vulnerably firm a she takes charge of her sexuality and those around her. McMillan and Machell respond to this with a balletic delicacy where Fletcher’s work translates some details from the slightly different approaches this work has received, not least on radio.
A first rate-revival of a small classic, one of the finest works the prolific, protean Greig has produced, and unique in any roster of early 21st century plays. Do seek out this rare, dream-like play crossed with the stink of fish-oil and puffin.