Entering the world of Outlying Islands is disorientating. As the doors of the King’s Head Theatre close, the dark walls become a murky night stretching on for miles, unsure of what is sea and what is sky. We’re on the island. We’re with two ornithologists, John and Robert, sent by ‘the Ministry’ to photograph and study the islands. They’re with Ellen and her uncle Kirk, the local hands to cater for the researchers. We’re here for four weeks. We’d better all get along.
Atticist presents a powerfully current exploration of ecology through the careful crafting of the island with which we interact. The remarkable set design by Anna Lewis constructs a stark sketch of an empty nest for us to call home during our stay. Capturing the bleakness and beauty of a land free of people, even when the small stage is full of people it remains haunted by absence. We learn of the island’s history from Kirk, authentically portrayed by Ken Drury, the chapel we’re sleeping in was once a pagan place of worship before the advent of Catholicism, an indigenous history rewritten by an invasive species.
“Even when the small stage is full of people it remains haunted by absence.”
The director, Jessica Lazar, creates a space for a detailed and engaged unpacking of cycles of power and violence. The shadow of a pagan death ritual reveals the Ministry’s germ bomb test to be the rematerialized ‘Plague of God’ which drove out the pagans. Lazar creates a clear and critical visual language for us to read the play, aided by a striking sound design by Christopher Preece, a highlight of which was a muted brass arrangement which bubbled and became indiscernible from murmuring chatter or distance cries.
Interrogating the deeply flawed and vying masculinities of John and Robert, exceptionally performed by Jack McMillan and Tom Machell respectively, Lazar lays bare the inherent male gaze in Greig’s writing. Foregrounded is the narrative of Ellen, a measured performance of great clarity by Rose Wardlaw, and her complicated relationship with watching and being watched. Her obsession with cinema burrows into the camera work of the strangers, who watch Ellen ever more intensely as they grow lonelier on the island. Ellen’s gaining of agency throughout the play culminating in a commanding display of control over the way in which she chooses to be seen is the backbone of a remarkable theatrical work which hinges on a fascination with seeing and understanding, but an uneasiness with being seen and being understood.
Outlying Islands runs at the King’s Head Theatre until the 2nd February. Tickets can be purchased here.