by Stewart Pringle
Yesterday I finished reading a book by journalist Dan Davies titled In Plain Sight: The Life and Lies of Jimmy Savile. As well as being a boldly researched, meticulous and readable account of the good deeds and horrendous crimes of the erstwhile national treasure, it is also the very best non-fiction book I have ever read about power. It tells us more about power in the modern world, its tributaries, currents and undercurrents, than anything written by Niall Ferguson, or by Owen Jones. The power it describes is drawn from the most significant figures and nodes in 20th century Britain – from the Royal Family, the Prime Minister, the tabloids, the BBC – and is then directed towards one primary goal: freedom. Ultimate freedom from the laws, social responsibilities, standards, morals, areas of movement lateral and vertical that affect the vast, vast majority of humans. It is not expressed primarily in golden Rolls Royce’s, jewellery and Pharaohic burials, though these are all outward features, its real location is in the semen encrusted jogging bottoms loping through the corridors of 10 Downing Street. The self-confession of sexual abuse to an audience of millions, the cackling at consequences. The aging DJ’s penis shoved wherever it damn well pleases.
And it stinks.
Islands has been widely panned by critics from across the political spectrum, but the loudest and most eloquent voices have come from what you’d broadly think of as the left or left-leaning. There are wide-ranging criticisms, many of which are valid (it’s baggy), many of which are just a matter of personal taste (it’s boring), but some of which I feel are unfair. Broadly speaking, this last category contains the sense that Islands fails because it lacks specificities, that it fails to illuminate its ostensive subject of tax havens, that it fails on the level of argument and that somehow this allows the villains of the piece off the hook. That it fails to nail them up for all to see.
Caroline Horton has probably brought some of this on herself. The show has been devised in collaboration with John Christensen and the Tax Justice Network, a fact broadly advertised, which builds an expectation of facts, figures, examples or explications. There’s none of that here. But then they have books on sale in the foyer, so you can always read up on the specifics in your own time. There’s also Horton’s impressive track-record, and the nature of that track record – You’re Not Like the Other Girls Chrissy was an utterly charming jewel of a love-letter to her grandmother, while Mess took the unquestionably messy subject of anorexia and made it feel extraordinarily, painfully clear and vivid. Islands on the other hand, takes something extremely messy and makes it far, far messier. It drenches it in grotesque poses and excess, in shit and garbage and nonsense until anything as prissy as a pie-chart or a real human being would look like a chip in the sugar.
But it’s not a show about a person, or a pie-chart, or about abstruse accountancy practises. It’s a show about power, and the islands power creates that float like adamantine Laputa above the rest of the shit. It’s too angry for reasoned argument or ‘drama’, what it’s discussing requires a different sort of language and an image-set, and belongs to a different tradition. From the moment filthy, fabulous Mary (Horton, on mesmerising form) lumbers onto the stage, Islands is about immersing its audience in the filthy end-times of ultimate freedom – offering an e-scatology of power which is relentlessly discomforting and irreducible, unfriendly, flip, and nasty.
Its filthy gods, performed in something like the familiar bouffon style, with plenty of the shit and obscenity that the style drew to itself through the early 20th century, have been seen in this form as recently as Shunt’s similarly brilliant and obtuse The Architects. Here their lineage is even clearer, all tawdry excess and sexual exhaustion, they are like the libertines of Pier Pasolini’s Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom.
Their wealth is unimaginable, their dwelling high and remote, their medium shit and blood. And like Pasolini (and to a lesser extent his inspiration De Sade, for whom power and the erotic were connected in endless paraphilias but little effective satire), Horton selects the imagery of bodily degradation – violence, corophilia, sexual cruelty – as a stand in for their true crimes, because it is the most genuinely honest manner of representation.
In Pasolini the poor and the vulnerable are reduced to vessels of defecation or sexual objects while the rich eat their shit as a delicacy – in Horton they dwell, disregarded down the drain in Shitworld. They are shat on and in, raped at the convenience of the powerful. They are also clothed like, and described as, a gang, and a gang they are – droog-like and saturated in invented language and codes.
Mary’s invocation of the bullfight also draws in Bataille, and his Story of the Eye in particular. Mary herself could even be seen as an anologue of Blue of Noon’s own sovereign of filth, ‘Dirty’. These comparisons are far from coincidental, as both texts were concerned with another form of destructive power, namely facism, and both chose to express its dynamics not through the explanations of politicians or economists, or through the lives of the poor expressed naturalistically, but through a visceral, faecal, fetishism of the acts and sacraments of mad, dumb, vicious power. Horton states that she was inspires to write Islands when she looked deeper into tax havens and discovered the real human cost that they wreck. The lives that are prematurely ended or turned to misery because of them. It’s unsurprising then that her response flows out like a furious stream of invective, that it has those same qualities of rage and the same end-point of sensible language and imagery that we find in Pasolini and Bataille. Meeting obscenity, Horton matches it with the obscene.
The gang, wild Mary, feeble Agent (John Biddle) and fun-loving Swill (Seiriol Davies), communicate in snatches of corrupted song and nursery rhyme – they are vulgar, and they speak in ugly, obvious phrases. There is no poetry or intelligence to their speech, and as they dominate the stage almost throughout the play, there is consequently little in the surface text of Islands. Their grasp on the lives of those in Shitworld is tenuous, they fear them only in so far as they have the ability to curtail their freedoms. You don’t have to stare as deep into the toilet bowl as Jimmy Savile to recognise those tendencies in those invested with the freedom power and money bring and who are determined to keep it.
The narrative, such as it is, sees the gradual corruption of a new Adam (Simon Startin) and Eve (Hannah Ringham) by the forces of these wealthy gods, a plot which naturally suggests its own origin story. Eve transgresses and is cast out, Adam begins to ascend the ranks towards the freedom of floating Haven, where you can eat all the cherries you could wish for. The story is simple, stuffed lightly with images of the breakdown of the last vestiges of religion, but its final moments are nonetheless quite devastating. The breaking of Adam by the gang’s described rape of Eve, and Eve’s final confrontation with Mary is as terrible as Horton’s suggestion that it’s ultimately futile – that remorse for any transgression will be dissolved in greater excess and the guilty will never be punished.
The form is loose and the pace gradual, and it’s almost certainly this, rather than the specific content, which is causing walk-outs in such numbers (36 on the night I saw it). Content for a while to be confused, they left when they felt they were being abused – that is, that their time was being wasted, that they were being bored for no purpose by a company or work without substance. The thirty second wet farting noise was just a last straw that had been in the mail for some time. It’s unfortunate, but the piece demands it. Thrills are not really on the menu – shit is, and if you’re bored of shit then that probably means it’s working. The process of creating Islands seems to have rendered Horton and her company incapable of compromise, the anger baked into a singularity of purpose. Why in hell should this be educational? Why in hell should this be entertaining? Those shivers up the spine that good theatre gives you? Luxury. This is art suspicious of itself, and with good reason.
Phil Ormrod took to Facebook last night to compare Islands to those beautiful, furious final moments of Men in the Cities and it’s absolutely the right comparison. Chris Goode fired that ‘Fuck ‘em’ off like a challenge (and yes, spine-tingly it was), somewhere between a confession of frailty and a cry of defiance that some things just don’t deserve logic and reason. Islands is the latest contribution to a rich tradition of blunt and messy howls aimed upwards from Shitworld to the islands of the absolutely free and absolutely fucking evil.
Paging Haven, eat shit and die.
– Stewart Pringle