Reviewing Zinnie Harris's Further Than The Furthest Thing in the Financial Times on its first appearance at Edinburgh's Traverse Theatre in August, Alastair Macaulay rightly began by hymning the glories of Paola Dionisotti's central performance as Mill Lavarello. Another actress might capture the strange dialect in which Harris makes the inhabitants of her small, remote island speak (dialect and island alike are based on Tristan da Cunha, where her grandfather spent several years as a priest), so that penguin eggs become "pinnawin haggs" and continuous verb tenses are abounding; another actress might convey that beneath this argot, Harris is in fact writing in verse, and might evoke the combination of seeming-innocent simplicity (possibly due in part to inbreeding; for 150 years there have been only seven families on the island) and crushing burdens both present and past... but to achieve all this with a glorious luminosity of spirit into the bargain, as Dionisotti does, is really rather special. This is, if there's any justice, award-winning stuff.
The arrival on the island of a businessman from the H'outside warld, the South African Mr Hansen with his plans to build a canning factory, signals the end of the islanders' isolation, but is in fact a decoy for the actual manner of the upheaval: they are removed en masse to Southampton (like the da Cunhans) when, in 1961, the volcano which dominates the island reawakens; Mill's second-act monologue in the midst of Hansen's English factory about the shattering change in lifestyle ("Is no more collecting sea shells/Is cinema on Sundays/And umbrellas") is heartbreaking. Motifs of sacrifice, of a marrow-deep sense of community and also of separation from that collective heart, and of the crushing weight of knowledge more than of actual guilt appear again and again both on the island and in the H'England of Act Two.
The near-three-hour length of the play seems less excessive here than in the frenzied hothouse atmosphere of the Edinburgh Fringe, but not even Irina Brown's nuanced direction can disguise the fact that matters could be compacted somewhat. Niki Turner's set and Duncan Chave's sound design bring out the correspondences between the cinder-strewn volcanic island and the rumbling factory which finally proves too much for Mill's husband Bill (a strong performance by Kevin McMonagle). Darrell D'Silva as all-purpose outsider Hansen is astute in allowing his affection for Mill to suggest itself in words not spoken and gestures not made, although Gary McInnes gets a slightly raw deal as Mill and Bill's nephew Francis, his heart hardened by events too complex to go into here. Harris's writing is impressive, but it is principally Dionisotti who animates the soul of the words.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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