Islands is a new play, written by Caroline Horton out of a devising process, which takes as its subject the behaviour of the super rich and the existence of tax havens. At the beginning of the play, a group of disgusting people set themselves up as gods and occupy a floating island ('haven') above the ordinary world ('shitworld'). Their values get lauded as the values of the whole society, in the media, in charity, in religion, in entertainment. One member of the group, Eve, is kicked out of this paradise and starts a rebellion against the gods, who are then made briefly uncomfortable by the media. Eve returns and wreaks a violent revenge on Mary, the chief of the gods, and announces to us all that only violent revolution will end the rule of the super-rich. But this turns out to be a false ending and, as Mary resurrects, the cast come together to sing a song about the resilience of the rich.
This plot synopsis doesn't really give you a sense of the show, though. The whole show is a disgusting, exuberant, foul, eloquent, lavatorial, piece of popular theatre mashed up with performance art. It is brilliantly designed, in a kind of disused empty swimming pool of a set, cracked, stained, dirty and missing tiles, with amateurish random bits of scaffolding and lights, a kind of rubbish-tip aesthetic running through the whole thing. The costumes are a grotesque mixture of drag, buffon, and carnival, distended breasts and pendulous balls, filthy underwear, junk shop hats and glasses and mismatched shoes, nightmarish make-up. The cast are remarkable: Caroline Horton is a kind of ringmaster, Lording it over the rest; John Biddle and Seiriol Davies are brilliant as her two semi-dragged up lustful, leering acolytes, bursting with terrifying energy throughout; Simon Startin and Hannah Ringham are Adam and Eve, plucked up from poverty and urged to aspire to the lifestyles of the super-rich; there are moments of real pathos as they both barely manage to keep up with values they don't understand, but still nervily mimic the words and movements of their masters. The sound design (by Elena Peña) is a layered collage of soundbites, TV, jingles, percussive interruptions and capitalism pastiche.
It's not nice. The show is obsessed with shit, arses, farts and dirt. There is a constant stream of verbal diarrhoea in the strictest sense. It's nasty and it dwells on its nastiness. Daringly, for a show that is all about going too far, we are dared to dislike it, dared to walk out. It's a show that knows it's not nice (I thought of John Lydon's lament in the dying days of the Sex Pistols in January 1978: 'ever had the feeling you've been cheated?'. Similarly disgusted, similarly hating.) On other nights, there have been walk outs. I think I saw half a row not come back from the interval (more on that later), but this audience stayed where they were. It's crude and it's horrible and it's filthily funny, but this is not a mistake; this show knows exactly what it is doing. It is a show that wants to go too far and doesn't want to enlighten us. It wants to ram our faces in the ashtray of our own world.
It's a show that wants to express the fundamental attitudes of the super-rich. It's not trying to analyse the economics of financial offshoring or the political complicity in global inequality. It wants to stop pretending that rich people are basically people like us just with more money. It's a show that wants us to understand that the super-rich hate us, really really hate us. It's a show of furious moral disgust. It's a show that is as disgusting as capitalism.
That makes the show sound like undifferentiated bile. But actually there are several powerful and resonant images. From the beginning, rather than money, we see these gods amassing cherries. Mary carried around a champagne bucket full of them offering them to and withholding them from the audience. They function as money, as forbidden fruit, as luxury, and as humanity too. The gods continually receive shipments of cherries; as Adam, mainly, carries them in, these packages leak bright sanguine red trails of cherry juice. It is an image that makes money look murderous. The squalor of Haven is a resonant and productive image that is used to great effect by the cast. There is a substantial and punchy speech 45 minutes in about bullfighting, which mixes fact with violent imagination and becomes an image of the rich's teasing slow killing of the state. There's a brilliant sequence when Mary expels Eve from Haven; she speaks a thunderous curse in a made-up language ('crack crack ber no frenzy taredsawre EVE EVA EVAAAA'), which is followed by Agent quoting the Bible ('I will greatly multiply thy sorrow') and then turning invisibly into Anne Sexton ('Bring me her heart, I will salt it and eat it').
It reminded me of The People Show and Duckie. I thought of that early performance art from the 1960s and early seventies: The Pip Simmonds Group, even Christie in Love. It made me think of all those violently revolutionary plays from last year (Wolf From the Door, Revolt. She Said. Revolt Again, Birdland, Pomona - christ it even had a set that looked like Pomona). I also thought about Bakhtin. The Russian cultural historian and theorist, Mikhail Bakhtin, argued that the 'carnivalesque' was a subversive strain in world culture, which was entirely different from the rational, ironic and analytical style of high culture; this popular tradition is dialogic and subversive and popular, dwelling on the lower-body stratum (cocks and bums and cunts) rather than the rarified upper body stratum of heart and head. It's messy and crude and, in its dialogism and heteroglossia, it represents a cacophony of popular voices rather than any kind of officialese. I know what Bakhtin would have thought of Islands and I like what he would have thought of it.
Look, it's not perfect. There are quite a few things in it that seemed to me a bit half-hearted and didn't really come off. There are some uncertainties of tone and, for some stretches, I was a bit bored. It's still a bit long I reckon.
But while it's messy, it's not a mess. The false ending, where Hannah Ringham scarily intones over Mary's apparently dead body...
This is how it must be. To end this long night of our captivity, this degradation, and take back the riches of justice and freedom. It is our work. It is yours and yours and yours and yours. People will do this. And I swear it has already begun.
... is a hugely exciting moment in the theatre. More blank revolution. But then the acolytes start agreeing. And you realise it's become bleakly empty ('Humanity's pulled it out of the bag' / 'I've never felt so optimistic. Thank you, Eve'). It's perfectly judged, because just when you think you might be getting some conventional catharsis (they even name it as such), the release is snatched from you and you stay angry. It's theatrically and politically sophisticated.
What do critics want? It's a mystery sometimes. Islands at the Bush has had some pretty stinky reviews. Michael Billington called it 'toothless and self-delighting'; Holly Williams pronounced it 'crude, rude, but not especially funny'; for Matt Trueman it was 'less a play than a placard. Best avoided'; Aleks Sierz was blunt: 'it is pretty shit'. But most of them seem to want it to be something that - it seems to me - it is not remotely trying to be. It is clearly not trying to critically analyse tax havens, or offer an economics lessons; it is not trying to offer some constructive solutions and nor is trying to satirise or 'send up' the super-rich. But all these reviews hammer Islands for not providing these things.
In fairness, I gather from some people that the show has been cut down since Press Night. And indeed there was a quite unexpected five-minute interval forty minutes in. This turned out to be a stroke of genius. I had been finding the show a bit annoying at that point. But in the break I was able to take stock, admit to the person next to me that I was't completely with it yet, and with that little release, I started to really enjoy the rest of the show. And if that's new, well it's a good idea.
But still, it's a bit bloody weird that the critics have been so uniformly hostile. Now, it's okay for someone not to like what it is trying to do and to wish that Caroline Horton and her cast had decided to do something different. But simply to ignore what it is trying to do and treat it as a failed version of a completely different evening of theatre is unimaginative and perverse.
Islands is much better than those reviews. It's fun and messy and huge. Worth a punt.