Published in the Guardian Seen at Heart of Hawick Three stars
WHEN civilisation finally catches up with Shakespeare’s Prospero and Miranda in The Tempest, there’s the assumption that they’ll leave their island behind. This magic and wildness is all very well, but it’s no match for society. Heading back to Italy, with all its order and discipline, is taken as read.
There’s a similar conflict between the tame and the wild in David Greig’sOutlying Islands. First seen in 2002 and now revived by director Richard Baron in a quietly absorbing production for the Borders-based Firebrand company, it begins with two young men from the ministry showing up on an Outer Hebridean rock.
This is 1939 and, with war breaking out in Europe, the island could be the wilderness the authorities need to carry out their anthrax tests. That’s news to James Rottger’s buttoned-up John and Martin Richardson’s libertarian Robert. As far as they’re concerned, they’re here to conduct an ornithological survey. To spend a few weeks in such a pristine environment has been their lifetime ambition.
As in The Tempest, it’s assumed they’ll go back home at the end of their stay. But what would happen, speculates Greig, if nature overwhelmed their stiff-upper-lip reserve? What if the island’s Miranda – Helen Mackay’s wide-eyed Ellen – offered an alternative way to live with her seductive mixture of innocence and sexual freedom? What if the opportunity to swim naked, to be unobserved, to be as unburdened by morality as the animals, became too great to resist? Why leave the island at all?
In this way, John and Robert are opposing aspects of our own personalities. We empathise with the self-restraint of one, but envy the lack of inhibition of the other and, once they’ve seen off the paternalistic hand of Crawford Logan as Ellen’s uncle, it’s hard to see why they shouldn’t answer the call of the wild.