To be entirely honest, I went into David Greig’s Outlying Islands, directed by Jessica Lazar, expecting a play about seagulls and isolation. Maybe a bit like Lord Of The Flies, trying to delve into the depths of human nature and finding it to be deeply, deeply rotten. I wasn’t expecting a play that was, for me at least, in some way transformative. It feels worth adding at this point that for anything else I may say about this piece, my one certainty is that is was absolutely beautiful – both physically and emotionally. The driving force of this play is a sense of desolation, of being cut off from the familiar and the recognisable. The question laid before us is simple: how do we respond to being detached from everything from which we have formed our identity?
Within our three main characters: Ellen (Rose Wardlaw), niece of the island’s leaseholder, John (Jack McMillan) and Robert (Tom Machell), two young scientists who have been sent to conduct a study on the island’s wildlife, there is an obvious divide in what this detachment really means. For the men, their isolation on the island forces them to find new things to hold on to. The counting of the birds, the taking of photos and a desperation on John’s part to cling to the morality of their society, become of utmost importance.
For Ellen, her redefinition of self looks very different. Her shift in circumstance comes with the death of her uncle, making her the sole owner of the land. This moment allows for a total reformation of her character. From the quiet girl that we first meet, constantly apologising and shrinking herself whilst trying to control her uncle’s drinking, Ellen undergoes a metamorphosis. Straightening her spine and for the first time challenging her “guests”, she becomes the land’s Queen. It falls to her to tell its history, to hold the funerals of its dead and to permit their burials, and this is a role that she slips into utterly instinctively. For her, being pulled away from the life with which she is accustomed seems to allow her to be the person who she has always been supposed to be.
There’s also the question of the silent, overarching presence of the Ministry. Sending out scientists and orchestrating the island’s eventual destruction, it’s difficult to forget that they are an absent force which preside over all but the smallest details of the island’s life, or lack thereof. For all the illusion of control that Ellen may possess, it is ultimately them who are calling the shots.
In some ways, the press night for this couldn’t have fallen on a better day. At the interval, as we all turned on our phones, the room collectively learned of the government’s Brexit vote being struck down by the largest majority in the history of any parliamentary vote ever. And yet, here we sit in the back room of a pub for no other purpose than to hear a story. Act two commences, and it’s more pertinent than ever that Outlying Islands is set just weeks before the outbreak of the biggest war in human history. And yet, here are our protagonists, sitting on a craggy rock, counting birds. As life imitates art with such precision, this also brought back home to me just how depressingly universal this play’s themes really are. Young idealists who are prepared yet unable to change the world can be found at any time and any place, it just so happens to be these ones who we are watching.
I could go on about this play all night, but I’ll try not to. It’s visually stunning and ethically challenging, and grapples with some immense questions. In my opinion, it’s hard to want much more.
Outlying Islands is playing until 2 February. For more information and tickets, visit the King’s Head Theatre website.