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The Theatreguide.London Review

The Unknown Island
Gate Theatre   Autumn 2017

What begins as a lovely fable inventively staged is crippled by failures of nerve in both writing and production that burst the bubble and leave play and performance limping disappointingly to an anticlimactic ending. 

Ellen McDougall and Clare Slater have adapted a short story by Jose Saramago into an evocative fable that is equal parts Arabian Nights and Franz Kafka. 

A man petitions the king and undergoes a series of ritualised delaying tactics designed to make him give up and go away, eventually achieving his aim, a ship in which to search for the titular undiscovered country. 

Further adventures climax with a dream in which he realises that what he searches for is not to be found geographically but spiritually. 

To stage this, director Ellen McDougall and her cast of four employ a style sometimes called Story Theatre, a mix of narrative and performance in which the actors move seamlessly between telling the story and acting it out. 

Narration is divided and shared among the performers in almost musical ways, the actors speaking sometimes in unison and sometimes individually, breaking up the text so that a simple sentence may be passed around among the four, each contributing a clause, phrase or even single word. 

Roles in the performance sequences are also shared and passed around, sometimes in mid-sentence, as the actors' fluid movements around the playing space contribute to the air of spell-weaving storytelling.

(Developed in Chicago in the 1950s as a modern version of commedia dell'arte and frequently employed in children's theatre, Story Theatre is probably best known from the variant used in the Royal Shakespeare Company's famous staging of Nicholas Nickleby.) 

The result is, for at least two-thirds of its one-hour length, a delightful, lightly comic and poetically evocative experience, the theatrical spell sustained even as the play pauses to let the actors share a sailors' dinner of bread, olives and wine with the audience surrounding them. 

And then the whole thing comes crashing down as both writerss and director lose faith in their own modes. 

By invoking the hoary and clumsy device of a dream sequence, the writers openly confess their fear that they cannot sustain the magical realism they created wholly out of words, and need this crutch to continue with the non-realistic elements in the story. 

At the same time the director, who has led her cast to creating it all on a bare stage, feels the need to bring in visual aids in the form of animal balloons, real water for rain, and the like – again an open confession that she no longer has faith in her own style or her own ability to sustain it. 

As the story becomes more explainable – it's just a dream – and the performance becomes more literal – see the animals, see the rain – all the magic leaks out of it. 

Performers Jon Foster, Hannah Ringham, Thalissa Teixeira and Zubin Varla deserve much credit for keeping the bubble afloat as long as they do, and director Ellen McDougall for choosing a performance style so appropriate to the fragile story. 

If only she and her co-authors had held their nerve.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review -  The Unknown Island - Gate Theatre 2017

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