Imagine the lush trees and glistening waterways of the Garden of Eden replaced by a pathetic plot where the hearty Eve (Hannah Ringham), eagerly hobbling in one heel, and average Adam (Simon Startin), flask in hand, exchange boring pleasantries over watering the plants. Caroline Horton’s daring drama is revolutionary, not only in how it blasts biblical iconography to pieces but also in what it makes of the debris afterwards.
Horton plays an atrocious deity named Mary, who with savage assistants Agent (John Biddle) and Swill (Seiriol Davies) offers Adam and Eve escape from their so-called Shitworld with passage onto their floating island Haven. The forbidden apple, with its centuries’ long implications, is replaced by sweet glittering cherries.
Played in the round at Summerhall, the auditorium walls covered with grimy tarps, this reimagining of the creation myth arms itself with every subversive trick in the book: the mock-making of the bouffon mode, the gender rebellion of drag (male actors walk self-possessed in heels) and ballad-singing under the disco ball in the underground mood of cabaret. We start questioning our impulse to laugh as grotesque set pieces bring brutal forces into play.
Holton is pure witchcraft in this role, and holds the room with a visceral speech where Mary describes the three stages of bull-fighting. We grimace at its lacerations, warning of the highly inventive suffering brought on victims within religious hierarchies. In Oliver Townsend’s completely unembellished costumes, supervised by Antonia Day, these gods are irreverent and nasty. Horton dons a belly-protruding outfit with saggy inflatable breasts and disco-ball testicles, Davies is carnivalesque in a ruffled tutu and blazer, and Biddle’s make-up couture underscores expressions of severity and ruthlessness.
After her play for a bucketful of cherries, the barbaric war on Eve is waged in monstrous threats by the statuesque Agent (one hellish revelation by Biddle). It’s around here that the play starts to build something new with its parts, and the island descends dangerously close to the surface of Shitworld. Elena Peña’s sly sound design erupts with the sounds of a bubbling sewer. Toilets when unblocked release stock numbers and cash figures, as this (tax) Haven becomes under siege by absurd media reports (Davies’ newscaster is excellently camp).
The pace is slow, like a plough treading through muck, as the nervy cast directed by Omar Elerian convey the wound of failed financial and religious systems, a wound filled with blood, mud and infection. It’s worth championing the obscene; in Startin’s humble turn as Adam, unwound by the end, you sense that’s the state of the world we live in.
But the view from that cherry-stinking, grotesque stage may overlook the very edge of the Fringe itself, a most gutsy and searching production.
Islands runs at Summerhall (Dissection Room) until 29 Aug. For more information and tickets, see the Fringe website.