Islands, Bush Theatre

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Originally written for Exeunt.

Two weeks, two shows about the grimy underside of capitalism, two bullfight metaphors. Bull, Mike Bartlett’s cutthroat dance of competition between employees facing the chop, embodies the bloody sport in its very form, depicting two corporate matadors at their most deadly. In Islands, the tax haven satire devised by Caroline Horton and her company, there’s an extended riff on the same theme. “Mankind’s extraordinary,” Horton concludes her gory description of the ritual, “don’t you think?”

But where Bull is all brutality, Islands is all display. Horton and co’s mucky allegory speaks a visual language of grotesque, glittering excess – an apt enough, if not particularly subtle, vision of the tax-dodging economic elite, who have pumped an estimated $18.5 trillion into tax havens. Despite all the research that has gone into the piece, Islands’ approach is not a documentary one. Instead, it mashes up cabaret, satire and bouffon, casting Horton as a grinningly repulsive god lording over Haven, an island that has broken free of the blighted ‘Shitworld’ below. Along for the ride are gurning sidekicks Agent and Swill and aspirational proles Adam and Eve (geddit?), all intent on protecting their hoard from the outreached hand of the taxman.

If the synopsis sounds baffling, it’s no less perplexing in performance. There’s certainly an argument that money has achieved the status of a deity in the 21st century, with capitalism as the new global religion, but aside from that not-so-shocking insight, Horton’s Biblical references gain little purchase (pun intended). As the all-powerful Mary, Horton herself more resembles the fickle, guzzling gods of ancient Greek mythology, feasting on cherries and indulging in the endless pursuit of pleasure. The ‘fall’ that Adam and Eve experience from this superficial land of bliss, meanwhile, is a decidedly topsy-turvy one.

The metaphors Islands seizes on to make its points are just as confused as its central conceit. Some, like the cherries that Mary hoards, are powerful on their own. They of course stand in for money – everyone wants a piece of the cherry pie – but they also suggest forbidden fruit, loss of innocence (“popping your cherry”), and their punctured flesh drips like blood. Elsewhere, though, imagination comes at the expense of any coherence. It’s all as clear as the muck that surges up from below, mixing religion, gameshow, cabaret, bullfight and, of course, relentless waves of scatalogical humour. After a while, shit jokes are just shit.

As sheer aesthetic, Islands can be briefly, grubbily captivating. Oliver Townsend’s design is gorgeous in a squalid, gaudy kind of way, his sunken swimming pool set suggesting the filth and emptiness sitting just beneath the fantasy of escape, while the talented cast revel in the grotesquerie. But it all seems to obscure rather than illuminate. Reality – in the voices of Thatcher and her present day spawn – intrudes only in splintered fragments, so small as to just enhance the bewilderment of those not already clued up on the subject matter.

There’s more promise in the closing scenes, when it becomes sickeningly clear that even the fallout of economic crisis will leave Mary and her cronies unsullied by the shitstorm down below. Realising they’ve got away with it, Haven’s inhabitants tentatively call for something to “mark the occasion”. What starts out as modest self-congratulation quickly escalates into unbridled gluttony and hedonism – champagne, hookers, “a really small private jet”. There’s no one to stop them.

The trouble is, even in moments like this, the irony and glitter are spread so thick that the critique struggles to peek through. The anger that is the only conceivable response to the situation absurdly depicted by Horton and her cast is finally allowed to break the surface but is itself undermined, leaving few directions available. There’s half an eye throughout on the audience – the people – but our complicity is only cursorily courted. In the end rage, instead of boiling, cools to a sort of helplessness.

Photo: Helen Murray.

Mess, Battersea Arts Centre

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Mess, despite its title, isn’t really that messy. And yet, at the same time, it’s extremely messy indeed. I should explain. The delicate subject matter that Caroline Horton’s show bravely and urgently tackles, that of eating disorders and more specifically anorexia nervosa (an illness that Horton has personal experience of), is about as messy as it gets. It’s a topic that’s still something of a taboo and that, even if we know we should be talking about it, has the tendency to make everyone in the room feel distinctly uncomfortable. To overcome this, Horton has created a form that speaks directly to the experience of suffering with anorexia, which is much more about control than it is about food. She has, in the meticulous style of the perfectionist, tidied it up.

This framing is both inspired and problematic. Before explaining why, I might as well admit right now that I came into Mess with a fair amount of critical baggage, which has doubtless influenced my perception of the show. I didn’t see it in Edinburgh, which I greatly regretted at the time, but I was a curious witness to the lively debate that surrounded the piece and its treatment of its subject matter. Several people raised concerns about the whimsy employed by Horton and the company in handling this issue, while Lyn Gardner suggested that responses to the show were sharply divided along gender lines, with men loving it and women expressing reservations. Picking up on this discussion, Matt Trueman brilliantly compared Mess with Cristian Ceresoli and Silvia Gallerano’s The Shit/La Merda – the most stunning show of the whole festival in my book, if in a so-searingly-intense-it-almost-scrapes-your-skin-off kind of way. No whimsy there.

Unlike the literal and figurative nakedness of The Shit, Mess bares only so much, covering the rest with flowers and fairy lights. Horton assumes the persona of Josephine, who together with her friend Boris (Hannah Boyde) and keyboard player Sistahl (Seiriol Davies) is creating a show about anorexia which, by its own admission, aims to “tackle issues and conquer stigma”. This isn’t the “proper” show though, Josephine is keen to emphasise – that will have a bigger stage and a revolve and a full orchestra. Instead, for now, we have to use our imaginations. Therefore a mound covered in thick pile bathmat becomes an “installation” representing anorexia; a light switched on downstage substitutes for a fridge, in which Josephine stores the single apple she struggles to eat for breakfast.

The story that Josephine and Boris tell us, with madcap sound effects and interruptions from Sistahl, is that of Josephine’s struggle with anorexia, her attempts to recover, and the anxious, awkward, but faithful support of Boris. Through gentle, endearing and often very funny touches, common concerns and misconceptions about anorexia are lightly addressed. As Josephine sternly tells us, “it is certainly not about silly girls being vain”. Instead, this is a disease that is inextricably linked with anxiety and control. Faced with the nerve-rattling challenges of life, brittle perfectionist Josephine’s coping mechanism involves colour-coding and spreadsheets, a regimented approach to life that gradually bleeds into her diet. She just wants to keep everything under her control. She just wants to win.

This irresistible desire for control is wittily reflected in the staging, over which Josephine repeatedly asserts her stubborn will. Sistahl is chided for his mischievous interventions, while we are unequivocally told – to Boris’s visible dismay – that this play will have no real beginning and no real end. The overflowing structure is poignantly fitting; it’s hard to determine when an eating disorder starts, and it never quite releases its grip on one’s life. Meanwhile, the precisely arranged prettiness of the production, which has faced criticism from some for its candyfloss lightness, is just another trait of the perfectionist. It’s like the grimace of a smile Horton pastes over Josephine’s fragile, wide-eyed face; a desperate assertion of “I’m OK”.

But for all its elegance and intelligence, Mess‘s perfect marriage of form and content begs a few questions. While the show gradually peels away the layers of Josephine’s illness, revealing the vulnerability beneath, one layer remains; there’s always a light coating of sugar. This reluctance to bare all is understandable, as is Horton’s decision to address a very personal subject through a fictional device, and given the anorexic’s need for control it feels apt that a remnant of the mask remains. Yet still there is the concern that this final shred of theatrical clothing obscures something, drawing attention instead to its own cleverness.

Similarly, the pleasing contrivance of the meta-theatrical structure might gorgeously echo Josephine’s compulsion for organisation – “it would have looked like an accident, but actually it would all be beautifully planned,” she smiles – but it also makes me wonder whether it’s perhaps a little too contrived. While apologising for the makeshift costumes and the lack of a revolve, Josephine assures us that “the real version will be even more real”, archly skewering the hierarchy of reality that is paradoxically imposed on a genre steeped in artifice. Does pointing to this contrivance dilute the truths that the show so vitally exposes within its fictional frame? Or is it in fact just an honest reproach to our self-deceiving fetish for “authenticity”? I can’t quite decide.

Whatever my reservations, though, fears that Horton’s sugary-sweet approach might trivialise its subject matter turn out to be unfounded. Instead, she gently opens it up for discussion. Acutely aware of the difficulties that attend conversations about anorexia, the piece is at pains to set audience members at ease, jokingly acknowledging the discomfort it might provoke. By taking on all the awkwardness, mainly through Boris’s blinking unease in attempting to cope with the situation in which he finds himself, it removes any pressure on those watching. With this possible tension diffused, we can just watch.

At the same time, this tactic does not prevent the show from broaching the darker aspects of its subject. The delicately handled sequence in which Josephine toys with paper-thin slices of apple, unable to put even one in her mouth, is heartbreaking, as is the extended monologue in which she observes another anorexic girl, hating her for the skeletal angularity of her starved body. In the most fearless of the play’s scenes, Josephine even admits that anorexia “feels amazing at times”, rhapsodising about the illness with a distorted logic that is both terrifying and captivating.

The most effective and lasting image of anorexia that emerges from Mess, however, is of its imposition of distance. Josephine describes suffering from the illness as being like snorkelling, or looking down from the top of a tall building; the world is muffled, far away. Anorexia serves, like the white duvet Josephine protectively clings to, as a buffer against the challenges of life. Perhaps it’s only appropriate, then, that the show itself always keeps us just that little bit distanced.