The Gate Theatre is an immersive and interesting space for a designer to work with. The designer in this case is Rosie Elnile, who has taken on The Unknown Island by Jose Saramago, which has been adapted for the stage by Director, Ellen McDougall and Dramaturg, Clare Slater. Elnie runs with the idea of immersion. I walk into a ‘sea’ (get it?) of turquoise with a soft blue wash on the lights. Not a single surface has escaped the turquoise cladding, the very obvious exception being a red model ship that perches atop a box centre stage.
Shortly before the performance begins, the previously unobtrusive music picks up to a swashbuckling tempo, matching the bold stride the actors use to enter the room. The players are unnamed and multi-roll the entire play, frequently speaking the dialogue of a character they are not physically portraying at that time.
The actors are an impressive mix of new talent such as Thalissa Teixeira, fresh from The National’s sell-out show Yerma, to veterans of the fringe scene like Hannah Ringham and Jon Foster. The fourth member of the party is a particular favourite of mine, Zubin Varla, whose resonant voice and depth of gaze always draws the eye. The cast stride in wearingred paper crowns that they quickly shed and smart red outfits that are all a similar shade of deep red. The actors fill the space, spreading out the distance between them to each cover a point in the room. They proceed to recite the fable of Saramago’s The Unknown Island pretty much verbatim. No single actor takes on a specific role, but uses run-on lines to stop any one actor standing out.
The plot is simple: a man, often portrayed physically by Teixeira, goes to the door of the King to ask for a boat so that he may sail to an unknown island. The King scoffs because all the islands are already known, but the man is unshakeably convinced that this cannot be true. His faith is such that he catches the eye of the cleaning woman at the King’s Palace and she follows him when he is granted his boat. They set sail together and instead of an island, find love in each other’s arms. It’s told in plain sentences using rhetoric to ask large existential questions about the nature of knowing oneself and our place in the world.
This is a short play (only 55 minutes) and the brevity works in its favour. The first 30 minutes go at a languorous pace, the actors tell the story with energy and the always-expressive Ringham is interesting to watch but that’s all they are doing, standing and telling a story. The onstage blocking feels a little like they’re just filling space, moving around to keep things interesting, it does little to service the story. The last 20 minutes are where the fairytale-esque story comes alive. From the moment we are plunged into the darkness and emerge in a dream sequence filled with the absurdity of all dreams, the play ceases to simply be four talented actors unutilised by a script that doesn’t need them. I won’t spoil the scene, not quite being sure what was happening was half the fun, but finally the text feels brought to life, adapted for an audience to see and not simply hear.
The story itself is unremarkable, it is told without drawing any real emotional reaction from its audience. Because the story is so simple and told in such a repetitive childlike way, it’s a difficult one to bring to the stage. As such, it loses the feel of a simple fable without really adapting the original story enough to keep the audience engrossed and make use of the acting talent on stage. However, what we do see in the last 20 minutes enthrals and amuses, with Foster and Teixeira in particular getting a chance to shine.
Go for four energetic and likeable actors; go to support The Gate Theatre and go for the (surprisingly good) red wine that they share round the audience with a sailor’s wink.
The Unknown Island played at The Gate Theatre until October 7 2017.
Photo: Cameron Slater