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‘Further than the Furthest Thing’ Review – Showing the Struggles of an Islander

A person stands, shouting, with a circular pattern projected onto the floor around them. In the backgroun d, a person sits in a chair at the edge of the projection.
Cyril Nri and Kirsty Rider in Further than the Furthest Thing at Young Vic (c) Marc Brenner

Staff writer Charmaine Tan reviews “Further than the Furthest Thing”, a play about islanders struggling with their identity and sense of belonging, which similarly struggles to convey its narrative. 

Set in one of the world’s most remote inhabited islands, Tristan da Cunha, “Further than the Furthest Thing” tells the tale of four residents who are forced to integrate into modern society against their will. It is loosely based on a historic volcanic eruption in 1961, which resulted in the evacuation of Tristan da Cunha inhabitants to mainland England. Inspired by her mother’s tales of a childhood spent on the island, playwright Zinnie Harris seeks to explore the sense of belonging within a remote community and the islander identity in this play.

Islands play an interesting role in the arts. Oftentimes, they are used to portray an idyllic way of life, but they also symbolise isolation. Movies like “Moana” portray island life as one of comfort and safety while “The Lord of the Flies” uses this setting to show the very worst in humankind. In “Further than the Furthest Thing”, the island is an identity. Tristan da Cunha is more than just a home for the islanders. It is the place where they belong; a place where everyone looks out for one another. They embrace the island and its community in all aspects, good and bad.

The play revolves around the lives of four Tristan da Cunha islanders. It shows how their lives are drastically altered because of a changing political landscape, acted upon by Mr Hansen (Gerald Kyd), the owner of several jar factories around the world. The play opens with protagonist Francis (Archie Madekwe) coming home to his uncle Bill (Cyril Nri) and aunt Mill (Jenna Russell) from Cape Town, where he works. During his time back, he finds out that his girlfriend, Rebecca (Kirsty Rider), became pregnant while he was away. In a fit of anger, he threatens to leave the island for good. Knowing that his wife would follow Francis if he left, Bill plots with Rebecca to keep him on the island. Soon after, Act I ends with the islanders being told to evacuate the island urgently.

In Act II, the stage is transformed into a factory in mainland England. The islanders are seen working with glass jars and Mr Hansen informs Mill that the island is now buried under volcanic ashes. The islanders, unable to adapt to the uptight and capitalistic nature of city life, are distraught. They want to visit their island for closure. Feeling as though no one in the city understands them, they hatch a plan together. However, many obstacles stand in their way.

A person speaks passionately and points at someone with their back to the camera

Kirsty Rider in Further than the Furthest Thing at Young Vic (c) Marc Brenner.

Unfortunately, the pace of the story is a little off. Many parts are unclear, obscured even more by the actors’ dodgy accents, which seem to change as the play progresses. Needless to say, it was strange to hear Mill, Rebecca and Bill all have distinctly different accents (or h’accents, should I say), despite being from the same island. The relationship tension between Francis and Rebecca was also too quickly resolved. Moreover, many questions that arose from sub-plots were left unanswered.

Whatever the storytelling lacks, the production design makes up for it. The design team makes full use of the versatility that a theatre-in-the-round offers. Locations are created through the innovative use of coloured lighting and effects. Prema Mehta (lighting designer) does a good job of immersing the audience in island life by drowning the audience in blue light at the start of the show. It creates a sense of tranquillity as the stage gradually transforms into the Atlantic Ocean. This sense of being a part of the island community is later broken by the artificial red light which alienates the audience in Act II. In creating this contrast, the audience is able to relate to how out of place the Tristan da Cunha islanders feel working in the factory.

A person stands surrounded by red tables in the shape of a circle below a large overhanging lighting fixture

Cyril Nri in Further than the Furthest Thing at Young Vic (c) Marc Brenner.

The set design in Act I is relatively bare, save for the occasional furniture and props. It represents the ‘simple’ island life, a description mainland reporters use later in the play. The mood greatly differs in Act II, when the production crew introduces massive tables physically barricading the islanders in their spaces, evoking the experience of being trapped against their wills. Harsher and more defined lighting is also adopted in the second half, accentuating the struggles experienced by each character: inner conflict experienced by Bill who eventually succumbs to the guilt of contributing to Rebecca’s “miscarriage”, personal conflict between Francis and the islanders who find it appalling that they need to make appointments just to speak with him, societal conflict experienced by the islanders, who cannot fathom the idea of living in the city permanently.

The sense of unbelonging that the islanders feel in Act II is also greatly expressed through the costume design. The islanders’ soft pink costumes contrast the grey/blue corporate colour scheme Francis and Mr Hansen both wear. It is easy to identify at a glance who the islanders are. Yet, as much as the creative elements work together to appeal to our senses, I think that the play focuses too much on symbolism and abstraction that it draws away from its capacity to explore the themes.

All in all, “Further than the Furthest Thing” offers a unique insight into islanders trying to integrate into modern city life but falls short in its storytelling. More time could have been spent drawing out the subplots, though the play redeems itself through its creative design. It’s not the best show out there, but its themes are worth thinking about.

“Further than the Furthest Thing” is playing at the Young Vic until 29 April. You can book tickets here.

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