Capitalism collides with an older, wilder, harsher way of life in Zinnie Harris’s strange and memorable play. The acclaimed Scottish playwright’s breakout evocation of life on remote island Tristan da Cunha landed multiple awards when it first premiered in the year 2000. Here, emerging director Jennifer Tang’s Young Vic revival reveals much of its magic, without quite remaking it for a new era.
The opening scene feels hackneyed: a long stretch of fabric is wafted about to resemble water, while wavy projections and vocal ululations combine to create a non-specific sense that we’re in unfamiliar territory.
But if Tang’s directorial stylings don’t immediately seduce, then Harris’s text soon does. This play creates an odd, naive but sharp language for these islanders, one that creates the sense that they’re marching to a different beat from the relentless forward march of post-war Britain. During the Second World War, they were forgotten by the ships that used to bring supplies, and now they’re under threat again, as the island’s volcano becomes crowned with golden, deadly lava.
Aunt Mill is their unofficial spokesperson: Jenna Russell makes wonderful, sure-footed work of the role, capturing the combined simplicity and cleverness of a woman who manages to make sure that every interaction takes place on her own exact terms. Mr Hansen (Gerald Kyd) is visiting the island from Cape Town, thinking of capitalising on the island’s bountiful supply of crayfish. But Mill won’t let him say his piece until he eats a boiled seabird’s egg – one that’s cracking under the weight of symbolism, suggesting both the possibility of a new life and the fragility of the islanders’ old ways.
Mill’s impetuous nephew Francis (Archie Madekwe) initially scorns the idea of spending his life scratching out a living from patches of land. But when he and his fellow islanders are forcibly evacuated to jobs in a dull jam jar factory in England, he starts to see things differently – and Tang’s production gains in dark power as new social hierarchies come into play.
A factory overseer watches the islanders work from behind his glass screen, when once only passing seagulls used to overlook their labours – and officialdom attempts to placate them with new patios, when they used to have free run of a whole island.
Sometimes, Harris’s depiction of this little community tips either into excessive quaintness (they speak adorably of “h’eggs” or “h’English teapots”) or into Rousseau’s ideal of the ‘noble savage’ (they’re untainted by petty bourgeois moral qualms about the acts of violence they deem necessary).
But Tang’s production is full of enough subtle moments to resist sentimentality. It’s a fascinating attempt to understand an almost-lost way of life, full of characters that are stubborn and smart enough to resist the tides of change.
Young Vic, to April 29; youngvic.org