The Unknown Island at the Gate Theatre online
Jose Saramago’s short story The Unknown Island is the tale of an explorer who demands an audience with the King, wishing to ask for a boat that will take him to a yet undiscovered island. Although he is repeatedly told that there are no more islands to be discovered, he remains convinced that, since every known place was unknown at some point, such an island must exist somewhere. A parable of self-discovery, the narrative merges reality and dreams to explore the way in which identity and aspirations evolve as they clash and come to terms with the surrounding world.
Gate Theatre’s production of the same name, directed by Ellen McDougall, sees four actors retell the story. They are all dressed in crimson and occupy a narrow blue room that has a row of spectators lined against each wall. The performers, two males and two females, act both as narrators and characters, switching roles continually. This points the attention to the text itself rather than any one individual performance.
The script has a lot of charm and opens up a whole world of readings, which makes it an excellent choice for live storytelling. The production, however, does not do the tale full justice as interpretations lack tension and verve at times. The majestic imagery conjured up by Saramago is reduced to the throwing around of inflatable animals and balloons; a full five minutes of the show, which lasts less than an hour, sees the actors offer olives and wine to the audience. While this has symbolic value, it detracts from the dynamism and slows the dramatic pace to a halt.
Essentially, rather than bring a magical world to life, the actors narrate the story as they move about the space, using a few props to add a visual layer. This staging cannot be said to add anything remarkable to the source material and only shines from the reflected light of Saramago’s work. Nevertheless, it is a play that will inspire, and it’s wonderful to see such a story given so much prominence.
Photo: Cameron Slater