Sunday, 25 January 2015

Islands: the backlash against the backlash against etc

There has been a theatre play called Islands, and for the sake of acknowledging the fundamental self-indulgence of my writing this, let's just assume you know everything about it already. If you don't, fire up the search engine of your choice and type in 'Bush Islands' and that should fill you in (or take you to some interesting porn).

The show got negative reviews (including one I wrote), and then I suppose in a small way there has been a backlash to the backlash against Islands... am I maybe now backlashing against that? Er, I dunno, but a) I've seen a couple of random arts types throw around the words 'arrogant' and 'lazy' to describe the reviews Islands got, and maybe feel a little defensive, and b) I'm just narcissistically interested in the narratives that build up around shows and the responses to them.

So there was a lot of bumpf about Islands being a satire about tax havens. It's possible to go to a lot of new writing and be pretty vague on what it's about, but not in this instance. And the bumpf (which you can read here) is pretty much in keeping with the general UK Uncut school of populist rabble rousing - this bit

"As you know, I have made fighting the scourge of tax evasion and aggressive tax avoidance a priority…"
David Cameron

We thought Dave might need a hand.

Seemed to particularly nail its assumed colours, I thought.

I think unquestionably the negative reviews were critical of how Islands was unilluminating as satire, not simply in a facts and figures way, but that it didn't particularly have anything to say other than 'the super-rich are arseholes'. And the criticism of the criticism is that reviewers went in assuming Islands was one thing on the basis of the bumpf, and threw a collective hissy fit when it turned out to be a sort of capricious, wantonly tedious bouffon-inflected cabaret. Would we have felt differently if Islands hadn't been introduced in a certain way?

It's notable that the two people who wrote big pro-Islands pieces (Stewart Pringle and Andrew Haydon) did a few days later, having also seen the show later... both are lovely pieces of writing, but they both feel explicitly post the original reviews, maybe a bit l'esprit de l'escalier. They certainly went in more clued up than the 'first wave', and I feel like they both give fine explanations for why the show was 'difficult'. But would I have felt any different if I'd gone in when they did? Despite all the fireworks of Stewart's piece in particular, for me neither really comes out with a 'this is brilliant and this is why' vindication, I didn't see an 'ah, that's what I was missing' moment.

They both suggest it's good because it's formally interesting, but then I get a bit hazier on what they're saying about its political virtues; I think they both sort of conclude its intrinsic formal 'horribleness' is itself comment enough on the super-rich. Which I think is a legitimate interpretation, but I think also most/some of us had that thought on press night and rejected it.

Probably the reason we had that thought is that the show freely acknowledges how punishing it is - at one point we're asked (clearly ironically) if we're having fun; later on, we're actually offered a short window to leave while the cast cover their eyes. And people are taking up the offer: anecdotally, there are large number of nightly walk outs: only six on press night, but Stewart claimed 36 when he saw it two nights later, and a comment under my TO review says 'I have never seen a play where so many people walked out'.

It's punishing, but what are we being punished for? If it's an allegory/metaphor for the super-rich (the cast) shitting on the rest of us (the audience), it's certainly BALLSY, but a) to what exact end? b) if that were the case then surely disliking it is in fact demonstrating a sound moral response and Pringle is a patsy. I dunno, if it was directly confronting a well-heeled crowed it would have more legitimacy, but I'm just not sure it scores a point of any particular integrity by grinding down a young, probably leftie audience lured in by the bumpf. I can't help but feel that the apparent lack of Twitter griping suggests that the walkouts were probably people who agreed with Islands' politics but felt alienated by the medium, and if anything maybe feel guilty they didn't like it, hence the lack of bitching (that's really speculative, but I guess it's kind of how I felt).

Of course, I'm not disputing the fact Andrew and Stewart liked it (which they did while accepting it was difficult), and of course if 36 people walk out of a sell out show at the Bush, it should be pointed out that that's 100 who've stayed. And even if the entire audience walked out every night I don't think that would be 'vindication' of any reviews. But if it's a show that uses alienation as its means of operation, surely there is – at the very least – integrity in not liking it.