Islands: Way off course

Publicity image for Islands - an idyllic image looking seawre
An idyllic island (N.B. Island in play may vary from island depicted)

Caroline Horton’s Islands could be an insightful look into the world of tax havens. But the preview at Live Theatre is going in the wrong direction.

It was going to be a tough task for Caroline Horton. She’s made her name with two excellent fringe plays (You’re Not Like the Other Girls Chrissy and Mess), both based on personal experience, but where do you go from there? Never wishing to take an easy path, her first major project not based on her own life is Islands, where the islands in question are the ones which are favoured by tax dodgers. They even had someone from the Tax Justice campaign giving advice on this issue. (Must say, I’m a little sceptical about Tax Justice – they tend to make wildly optimistic claims about the benefits of clamping down on tax havens, such as the River Tyne flowing with chocolate milk – but they’ve certainly done their research.)

Before going any further with this review, I must point out that the two-day run at Live was a preview and not a finished product. To give you an idea of how much the play is changing, it’s grown from one hour advertised in the programme to nearly two. It could change again before the first proper performance at the Bush Theatre next year. I don’t normally review previews, preferring instead to wait for finished products, but with Horton being the solo performer I have the most respect for I’m making an exception. I was hoping to see a promising product and just give a few pointers of how to make things better, but what I saw instead is seriously headed in the wrong direction. I even noticed people leave between the first and second half. That’s never a good sign.

I’ll get straight to the point: this play fails the “What’s going on?” test. They didn’t, thank goodness, make the worst mistake of all and do a tedious opinion play. (“But Mr. Goodwin, if you set up this offshore account, it will cause thousands of Bratislakislavian orphan kittens to starve to death.” “I know. Bwuhahahahahahahaha!”) But the mistake they’ve made is the next worst thing: a story so abstract, it’s impossible to tell what it’s supposed to be about. Now, there is a niche for this kind of theatre, and normally I’d leave it at that. But surely the purpose of the play is to raise awareness about an important global issue to as wide an audience as possible. And as it stands, I can’t work out what the play was supposed to say about tax dodging other than it’s bad.

It should not have been this way. Horton has a track record of plays in surrealistic settings that work well, like the suitcase-cum-sets in Chrissy and the den representing her inner mind in Mess. This time, it’s a quite bizarre setting in a land called “Haven” where the outside is called “Shit-world” where the rest of us expect the rich to pay their way (and, naturally, the rich think the plebs have a damn nerve expecting them to pay tax like everyone else). This was an entirely workable approach,  but there is an important rule that’s been forgotten: if you’re going to do something as complicated as telling a tale through metaphor and parable, you really want to keep everything else simple – especially when the subject material is something as complex as offshore finance. Instead, we’ve got: a lot of references to cherries where the cherry juice may or may not have been a reference to blood; an account of how one-sided a bull-fight is which was presumably meant to make a point about one-sidedness of tax havens but I’m not sure what; and a guy who gives a blow-by-blow account of how he disposed of whistle-blower Eve, only for Eve to suddenly appear on stage alive and well; and a whole load of other things I lost track of.

In addition, I don’t understand the purpose of making the play so crude. The costumes and scenery look nothing like the publicity image above – instead there’s various costumes involving strap-on testicles and breasts, and a set that looks like a public toilet. Surely, in a land where the billionaires consider themselves superior to the great unwashed, they would be making themselves more dignified. Quite possibly amoral scumbags who care little about what they do to the rest of the world, but not the sort who keep talking about, I quote, “fucking you up the arse”.

The thing is, there are all the ingredients there for a thought-provoking play. There are hints at the beginning of the billionaires controlling the government of the island and robbing them as much as they rob the rest of the world, but this is only touched upon. Eve clearly went of some sort of journey from corporate drone to disillusioned whistle-blower, but it’s not clear what made her turn. There was something about how you can make you financial affairs to complicated for the authorities to properly tax, but the game show format and the reference to “nominal crabs” was confusing in a bad way. And clearly there was meant to be something about those companies who make half-hearted contritions and get away with a voluntary contribution far less than what they owe (are you listening Amazon?), but again, it felt confusing for the sake of confusing.

I am not writing this review to give Caroline Horton a kicking; instead, I hope this get get the play back on course. I suspect what’s gone wrong is that it’s devised theatre that’s got out of hand. After all, devised theatre is hard. Caroline’s plays have always had a devised element in the production process, but until now, as the lead/solo performer she’s been firmly in the driving seat. This time, it looks like it’s too many cooks spoiling the broth. Most or all of the ideas that went into this play are workable, but put together it made something incomprehensible.

So here is my advice for Horton and the rest of the cast. Between now and the Bush Theatre première, go back and think about what it is you really want the play to say. It could be how they do it, what these tax-dodgers are thinking, the impact they have on the rest of the world – but you can’t say everything in one play, so make a decision. Once you’ve decided on that, think very carefully about whether the audience will pick this up. An easy trap with devised theatre is that the cast know exactly what’s going on and assume the audience will know the same, forgetting that they know the play inside out but the audience doesn’t. In order to make the message understandable, there is going to have to be a big cull of ideas that came from the devising process. In short: if it doesn’t help get the point across, it probably needs to go.

But, for all the disappointments of the preview, I still believe Islands can be saved. It is possible to create interesting creative works about the dry subject of global economics, and if you want something that is entertaining, engaging, doesn’t ram morals down your throat and yet explains a complex subject with clarity, I can highly recommend The Luckiest Nut in the World. Take some lessons from that, and Islands may yet be a success.

UPDATE 21/01/15: I’ve had quite a flurry of pageviews over the last few days, and I think I’ve worked out why: Islands proper has started at the Bush Theatre, people are typing “Caroline Horton Islands Reviews” into Google, and I’m coming up near the top. Anyway, press night has now come and gone, and the reviews are appearing online. Ouch. Ouch. Ouch. It’s fair to say that there are some people who loved this play too, but surely this reaction from the press wasn’t the plan.

As such, I suspect a lot of people reading this review now are searching for reviews to back up their view of how crap they think the play was. Well done. You found one. Now please read on, because I am going to defend Caroline Horton.

She is a damned good writer and performer. Anyone who saw Chrissy or Mess will back me up on that. Each time she ramped up the risks she was taking. You’re Not Like the Other Girls Chrissie took a gamble and used four suitcases as a multi-purpose set. Mess used a surrealistic and comedic format of a play within a play for a very hard-hitting story of anorexia. Either of those gambles could have backfired horribly, but it would have been a tragedy if she’s instead chosen to play it safe and write something tamer.

So this time, it seems she’s gone a step too far and a gamble didn’t work out. Something like this always happens to the best of writers at one point or another, but the best writers use these experiences to learn from their mistakes and try again. So what I’m asking everyone reading this review is not to write off Caroline Horton on this one play. I know what she can do. She deserves another chance.

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