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Some thoughts on Caroline Horton's Islands

Caroline Horton Islands
Photo: Ed Collier

"It failed/Failed to hit the mark/To solve the problem/To represent the issue/So much more could have been said/What a waste."

I came out of Islands feeling jubilant. It was exciting, it was crazy, and I'd loved it. I'd gone alone and felt the need to talk about it. So I turned to Google and to reviews.

I knew it had divided critics and opinions in general but reading the reviews felt so disheartening.

Many of the critics felt they hadn't got what they'd expected but also seemed to imply a certain kind of obligation when making political theatre.

Perhaps it was an expectations thing. To go in when the show began, having read the copy, you'd expect a play about these issues. It wasn't that. 

It feels futile to labour over what something is sometimes. It's a play but it's not. It's the Rocky Horror Show meets Shunt meets The Dresden Dolls meets Ubi Roi meets something entirely new.

It's not people discussing tax havens in a straight, dramatic but angered manner.

[Maybe it's like when you go to drink what you think is orange juice and it's actually water and it tastes disgusting. But it's not. It's just a surprise and yet it tastes grim.]

I went on the last night of the show. I'd not been too aware of reviews but seen a lot of buzz on Twitter and in person too, talk of it riling people up, of it being shocking, of walk outs and it being something you should see, even if you won't necessarily like it.

With all that in mind my idea of what Islands would be was inevitably different to what those first audiences would have expected. I went in pretty open. If anything, really ready to be shocked, which I'm not sure that I was.

So sure, I get that expectations affect enjoyment. But I reject the notion that this should have been more political.

Politics in art doesn't have to be, and probably shouldn't be, stuffy. It doesn't have to be subtle or didactic or anything else for that matter. It should just say something. Somehow.

I don't get what the critics wanted. Or how it was a missed opportunity.

Did they want facts? Did they want opinions and anger? The latter was there I feel, but really, we can watch the news and read the paper and watch Question Time and we all know it's wrong, but is that what you want to put on a stage? 

Surely the exciting question is what can theatre do that journalism can't?

And the answer is this. It's visceral, grotesque, ugly, garish and wonderful. It makes you feel as well think and that's entirely necessary. 

It's also very funny. ("Comedy is simply a funny way of being serious." Peter Ustinov.)

It's glamorous and nightmarish and you feel on side with Mary to begin with, she's an outsider, she's an anarchist, and yes she's right, it is a bit of a "shit world". Something needs to be done. And then we realise she's just as bad. And it doesn't matter if you're an artist, "a good person that went to university". It doesn't matter that it's a legal loophole. Even if you think the whole system's shit and you're riding above.

And there's the scary real-world voiceover and they're put in their place with a slapped wrist but then they bounce back and celebrate being good and order out, a flight to LA, caviar, whatever, and it's infuriating. And it's this party, and no one is stopping them, and we're watching it happen.

It plays with ideas about power and the media circus and politics and how it's all linked. 

I don't even want to write too much more about the show because I'm not sure I know how, but I do think that this is exactly the kind of theatre we should be seeing, even, and especially, in relation to big issues. It's exciting, it's new, and for me, it was really enjoyable.

Challenging is fine. Not liking something is also fine. Maybe you didn't get what you wanted from it, but what did you get? Look at that.

And if you're still not convinced, can we still please celebrate theatre that is trying something new? Yeah? Cool.

Do check out Dan Rebellato's review - a brilliant, worthwhile read.