On the first London viewing of Zinnie Harris's Further Than The Furthest Thing at the Cottesloe last autumn, I prophesied that Paola Dionisotti's performance would prove to be "award-winning stuff". With a brace of awards now under her belt, she and the play (a National Theatre/Tron Theatre co-production) now return to the Tricycle for a deserved further run.
Harris's play, loosely based upon the evacuation of the islanders of Tristan da Cunha in 1961 from their volcanic South Atlantic rock to Southampton, reveals more intricate patterning and thoughtful motifs the more one looks at it. I appreciated this time as I had not previously the parallels between the "tons of boiling water" in the volcanic pool on the island, in which community leader Bill Lavarello first realises that something is amiss, with the water in the factory pipes which the transplanted Bill supervises in England and which becomes the ultimate agent of retribution for island wrongdoing; more trenchant is the contrast between the islanders' own quasi-religious moral code, which considers lying to be alien and unforgivable, with the casual duplicity practised upon them by factory-owner Mr Hansen and the British government in general to prevent them returning to the island, and that between the apparent innocence of the islanders' upbringing and the guilt of the black episode in their collective and individual pasts, rendered so much more insupportable because they have no relative reference points by which to come to terms with it.
Irina Brown's production is fundamentally unchanged since last seen: it remains sensitive and delicate, almost overcoming the occasional tendency to narrative sprawl in the script. What I did find irksome, however, was the range of accents now on show after three of the five roles have been recast. Harris has written the speech of the island – on which only seven families have lived for 150 years – in an odd yet affecting dialect, which Dionisotti continues to deliver beautifully in an adopted (possibly old-Kentish) Mummerset, whereas David Burke and Mairead McKinley simply use their natural voices of Received Pronunciation and broad Derry respectively. This is not just a pedantic point: it seriously dilutes the twin senses of community and isolation which the islanders have in common. In comparison, it is merely ironic to hear Paul Shelley using a strong accent for the South African Hansen even as he urges the islanders in England to be more "like Britons". But Harris's tale remains feeling and intelligent, and Dionisotti's Mill Lavarello is simply one of the finest performances currently to be seen on a British stage.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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