Splendid Isolation, by Nick Ward

Friday, 26 August, 2011

Riveting theatre

Edinburgh ’11, Pleasance Queen Dome, – – 3rd – 29th  Aug at 14:05

Splendid Isolation was a riveting experience. This is a very tight production of an extremely beautiful script, adapted from Joseph Conrad’s novels “ Heart of Darkness” and “ Outpost of Progress “. The acting is absolutely splendid, the lighting is perfect, the sound and music enormously effective, creating the necessary ambiance for the production to transport us in time and distance.

The initial moments grab our attention wonderfully in powerful sound and beautiful  light. Then, in an almost music hall theatrical presentation, Steven Beard, as the Managing Director of a turn of the19th/20th century Trading Company,  moves to the front of the stage to engage us all in understanding his world, his role in it. His delivery is beautifully timed, stylishly mannered and splendidly forceful. He introduces us to  The Company Ethos which exploits the third world for vast profit, which he serves, whether he agrees with it or not. He also introduces us to the next candidates being interviewed for essential jobs in “The Colonies”.

They are Carlier, (Johnnie Duval) and Kayerts (Peter Tate). Both are social reprobates in some mysterious way, which makes them perfect candidates, as expendable employees in an outpost at the edge of the known world. They are willing to leave England and their families for the jungle, to gather pearls brought to trade by the native “savages” in a dangerous area from which the last incumbents have disappeared.

The trio do a tremendous job of rapidly establishing the pecking order in an entertaining interplay, classily  demonstrating the formality of the way of life, the establishment attitudes and the distinctive personalities of each of the characters. They also sing in a jingoistic rallying manner, raising the energy another notch.

The Office in Britain and the Outpost in Deepest Darkest Africa are played on the same glorious wooden set with changes of lighting and sound which effectively move us from Victorian England into a very hot, very English environment, inappropriately perched on the edge of the steamy jungle. The men wear their suits, with high collars and tightly knotted ties because Kayerts insists. He is in charge of the detail. He is an man who declares he likes order, while Carlier more wants to relax into Being, restrained by his training as an obedient employee.. They have been getting to know one another a little on the voyage by ship and are now ensconced in the Company Office where the dearth of pearls is creating a problem for Kayerts, who wants them brought in by Carlier, recorded in writing by Carlier and put in the locked coffers by himself to create a good impression back in England, even though they never see anyone who would notice.

Throughout the play the Native Population is represented by Makota, a very beautiful black woman dressed in creamy white, who drapes herself about the forefront of the set when Outside and acts as servant when Inside. Yvonne Wandera also sings evocatively and her presence gives the play a powerful counter-balance of feminine wild energy , contained in a dignified, sexually free character who is the link between the Officials and the Pearl Fishers. The people who gather the pearls are established as existing, made visible in the distance, to our inner eye by fine attention given to their activities from the edge of the office domain by Mr. Carlier.and by Makota’s movements and vocal long distance communications with them.

Carlier is a far more likeable man than Kayerts, more modern and rebellious in his attitudes, interested in encouraging conversation to discover facts about his bosses past but unwilling to share his own secrets. Kayerts controls the distribution of alcohol and opium (used by many Victorian Colonialists), according to his own whim.  Carlier tolerates their relationship to be given permission to drink, smoke or remove his collar while questioning their role in the jungle, the mystery of their predecessors and niggling Mr. Kayerts about his dark past.  Kayerts seems to have “ unproven” sexual abuse of his daughter as one layer of his guilt ridden personality and perhaps murder is common to them both. We never really know.. But we do know neither of them is a morally upright citizen nor a particularly fine person. They are in charge of the Trading between the native people and the Empire, giving cheap manufactured baubles in exchange for Nature’s Pearls..

They are in Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness” within themselves,.as well as abandoned in the heart of the dangerous darkness of isolation, in a country they do not understand, serving Masters who care nothing for their sanity nor the people of any class or race. The Masters consistently exploit for scientific knowledge or industrial dominance. In the first scene the Managing Director tells us, whether or not these men survive their experience will be treated as a useful experiment to gather information for future policy in the field.

The dynamic between Makota, Carlier and Kayerts explores all the issues Moliere addresses so well in Servant/Master comedy. Who is really in charge? Why does it matter? This is a serious work about class, dominance and submission, slavery, trade  and addictions, with many delicious comic moments, addressing issues which are still current in our world. The financial difficulties and the wars in this century are the grown trees of the seeds planted by such men and such trade relationships all around the world.

Simon Ward’s poetically beautiful words are brilliantly delivered by this talented, magnificent, mature ensemble cast. Yvonne Wandera is given no words we understand in her role as Makota, She and her nation speak a language we do not know. She communicates with every movement of her eyes, every graceful nuance of her body and her haunting singing voice evokes many moods as the story unfolds. She and Carlier have a beautifully directed sexually charged scene which they both play with a wonderful delicacy. Kayerts does not notice this relationship because, for him and his ilk,  her people are animals not humans. She does not ever disappear into a victim role, despite Kayerts more and more visibly brutal nature but Carlier is more and more disturbed by his subservient situation and the massive contradictions inside.

These two white men are in the grip of forces too strong for them, both externally and from within. They are in the circumstances if their time, morally bereft and entirely unsuited to the environment into which they have been catapulted. They may have volunteered themselves but had no idea how deal with the circumstances set up for them by their employers. It is not “the savages” who are ignorant but the “ civilised men” with no honourable traits and no willingness to adapt to, or learn from, their environment. They deteriorate into their own versions of madness before the end of the action. Makota survives with dignity.

This play has many layers of resonance, historical and psychological accuracy and a depth not common in many Festival offerings this year. It is a triumph of directorial skill and perfectly played characterisations, which is a delight to behold. It’s lessons are absolutely essential for all 21st century European humans wondering what it was that went so badly wrong. It is a beautifully crafted, real play which sings with Life. .

Cast Credits: ( alpha order ) Steven Beard– Managing Director, Johnnie Duval  – Carlier.  Peter Tate Kayerts,.  Yvonne Wandera – Makota

Company Credits: Writer – Nick Ward,  Director – Simon Usher.  Sound and Music – Neil McArthur.  Stage Manager Jude Malcomson, Designer Anthony Lambie,  Lighting  – Simon Bennison, Creative Producer – Gabby Vautier, Associate Producer – Mark Bixter

© Lilian Kennedy Brzoska 2011

reviewed Monday 15 August 11

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