Malevolent forces shaping small communities is a strong premise for all kinds of drama, from the arrival of outsiders that tend to be the focus of horror to the power shifts of Pinter plays that upset the status quo with new authorities forming that overshadow the existing order. Zinnie Harris’s 2000 play Further Than the Furthest Thing combines these ideas with broader notions of industrialisation and the religious management of a community relatively untroubled by the outside world until one if it’s returning sons brings change. But who exactly is in danger here, the islanders or the people that enter this place from outside? It may take close to three hours to find out but there is plenty to engage with along the way.
Staged in the round at the Young Vic, this revival is a purposefully disconcerting experience with long sections of deeply compelling conversation around which the story unfolds. Some of these feels quite tangential in the long first Act that runs for close to 90-minutes but the avenues that Harris pursues eventually coalesce in the second where the testing of family loyalties interacts with a fear of change and a romantic connection to home and the natural world. Throughout, there is an almost supernatural feeling of impending doom, of tragedy waiting to strike but not of the innocence of these island people being unfairly tested. This atmospheric play is ultimately about delayed retribution and the choices humanity makes for itself whatever the cost.
Harris has created a peculiar half world somewhere between an unsmirched Eden and a troubled land deliberately quarantining itself from the life beyond. It exists in a nowhere place that is accessible from Cape Town and England but with accents that mix Scottish and Irish with northern England. The extent to which the returning Francis and his factory-owning friend Mr Hansen bring some kind of evil with them is open to debate, or perhaps it exists on the island already with something stirring the sea, individuals behaving strangely, two fresh eggs being smashed to reveal a blackened centre and a new life on the way that does not necessarily indicate a welcome or fresh start for the characters.
The return of Mill and Bill’s nephew Francis from Cape Town is a happy event initially, although Mill’s refusal to be touched or hugged at first keeps Francis at bay, creating a separation between the generations as the younger seeks assimilation and development while the elder wish to preserve and honour their traditions. As Francis lays out a plan to build a factory on the island, something supported by the community in an unseen vote, Harris adopts an Enemy of the People feel but soon takes the play in another direction, referencing works as diverse as The Crucible in the closely observed interactions of a defined and frightened society, as well as Jerusalem in the unpicking of notions of illusory nationality and connection to the pastoral while something rotten or broken occurs on the surface. These portents of doom and the effect of nature itself steer the play towards a more uncomfortable, even pre-dystopian destination.
The two parts of Further Than the Furthest Thing are tonally quite different from one another, although they are thematically linked through discussions of cause and effect as well as the clash of rural and urban life. The first is set entirely on the unnamed island, a place reliant on ‘the boats’ to bring them food and people but largely unengaged with the countries beyond, entirely sitting out the Second World War as the audience discovers later in the play. It is nominally the early 1960s but Harris effectively creates a timeless and rootless place, using a linguistic quirk that gives the islanders a child like and colloquial sentence structure with few having attended school or ever left the place that they were born. But Harris uses only three characters to represent the community – Mill and her husband William known as Bill, along with young woman Rebecca.
The implication of unearthly influences on the island is not something that the play satisfactorily resolves, although a rational explanation is given in Act Two. Bill’s overwhelming encounter with the rumbling water in a mountain lake that almost causes him to drown is staged as a supernatural event in this Young Vic production with a dramatic opening scene directed by Jennifer Tang in which Ian William Galloway’s video design and Prema Mehta’s lighting create gentle waves that evolve into rapid, violent swirls of black and coloured light. That Bill is a Christian who saw the war and brought both a church and the practice of baptism – an significant ritual of renewal – to the community is an important theme in the context of these strange occurrences, implying a godly intervention, a punishment perhaps, that sits alongside the scientific reasoning of the second part of the drama. Yet in the characters’ devotion to the island, they never questions the factual cause or the possibility that this creator has turned on them.
This is given further emphasis in Rebecca’s story, pregnant by a man she refuses to name and viewed within the village as part scarlet woman in the style of Mary Magdalene and part maternal figure, perhaps experiencing an immaculate conception. Harris uses Rebecca as the catalyst for the drama and having established the strange wonders of island life, the attempt to keep Francis on the island through marriage and the true story behind Rebecca’s pregnancy take the story in a darker, almost horrifying direction with an act of conspiracy the characters must pay for later in the play. The powerful scene in which Rebecca gives birth with only Bill to support is sparsely staged by Designer Soutra Gilmour using black cloths and a coloured paste-like substance in place of both blood and water, implying the rottenness that has been born in this community, a place where nothing new can live.
Act Two is a very different proposition, set a year later in an English factory run by South African manager Mr Hansen in which Francis has assumed a supervisory role. Harris presents a far clearer concept of dystopia in a heavily populated industrial city that the islanders struggle to adjust to when their freedom is replaced by long hours of repetitive work, the sunless confines of the production line and boiler room as well as the damp-filled temporary homes they have been given. The writer examines notions of forgetting here, linking up with part one in the romantic examination of the idealised natural environment that the islanders-turned-workers hold in their heads in contrast with the place they now exist in (and never appear to leave). Their desire to return to their apparently devastated home is the dramatic driver.
There are also character developments in this part of Further Than the Furthest Thing that return to the generational divide in which the indecisive Francis refuses to remember the island or believe in returning to it, accepting instead the new life and career opportunities a much larger world can offer. Harris and this production present a gloomy picture of the factory world but cast no particular judgement about the choice Francis and unseen others make to stay in England. By contrast, Mill clings to the physicality of the place she once lived in a dreamlike speech in which she refuses to accept the ruin of everything she knew without seeing it for herself and determines to fund a return trip. And it is at this point that revolving slowly on the central stage at the Young Vic, Harris’s doom-laden story finally reveals itself as Mill quietly confesses the recent history of this romanticised place and the human choice from which the suffering of this community has emerged and turned against them.
Harris tells a long and complex story filled, in this production at least, with a somewhat incomplete balance between Christianity and the supernatural, the power of industrialisation and nature, remote and urban living. The depth of these debates is partially sacrificed to plot and character resolution, providing firm answers where perhaps a little ambiguity would be valuable. The changing tone is very engaging though in Tang’s production, making the audience work hard to keep up with the shifting sands of the narrative and involved in these concepts of good and evil, along with who is being punished and why. It is an elusive drama at times but one that has a cumulative power, captivating in its scant physical detail a vast conceptual framework particularly when the different strands of the story come together and characters attempt to come to terms with what they have done.
There are tones of Yaël Farber in the production choices and aesthetic, staged on a slow revolve designed by Gilmour, the first Act being largely representative, with four chairs and actors ever present around the room. This creates space for their relationships to grow while implying the expanse of the beautiful island vista with mountains and the sea that are left to the audience’s imagination while creating enough room for shadows to fall that alter the viewers perspective on this supposed idyll as the drama unfolds. Act Two is far more proscribed by Gilmour with crescent two-tier bars dominating the stage, implying the claustrophobic nature of the factory space as well as doubling for offices and the important boiler room control panel where Bill’s choices eventually confound him.
Jenna Russell leads the drama in the complex presentation of Mill, an almost ethereal character at times who represents the simplicity and beauty of island life but also has a deeply practical, even controlling streak that tries to retain the life she knows. Russell with a soft Scottish accent barely raises her voice in close to three hours of performance, softly inciting others to action, whether it be the nervous Bill holding the warm but fragile eggs that herald so much drama or convincing Francis to stay and marry into the island. The steelier determination of Act Two feels more frenzied but there is both pathos and conviction as Russell calmly reveals the truth about her community.
Bill is more subject to external forces than his wife and Cyril Nri charts a course in which the character becomes overwhelmed by the choices he makes, fearing the Christian retribution that the rumbling sea foretells. His nervousness develops into fear and guilt in the second part of the drama, suddenly thrust into the noisy and chaotic world of the factory, a kind of hell that in Nri’s performance sets a path for inevitable tragedy. Kirsty Rider is also particular good as Rebecca, a character scorned but also beloved, childhood sweethearts with Francis but who suffers uncomplainingly throughout the first act, seeing a far darker perspective on the world than any of her neighbours. But Rebecca undergoes an important transition through the things that are done to her body, and in Rider’s performance, a return to the island is less about salvation than independence and self-sufficiency.
Francis is a harder character to understand, and seems to make choices depending on where he is, wanting to stay on the island when he’s there but happy to forget it ever existed when he’s not. Such extremes of unaccountable behaviour are not an easy thing for Archie Madekwe to navigate but he makes Francis feel convincing, representing the desire to move beyond childhood into another kind of experience. Finally, Gerald Kyd as Mr Hansen is an increasingly empathetic figure who has far more to do in the second part of the play and his own demons to fight for which guilt consumes him eventually.
Like Jerusalem, Further Than the Furthest Thing muses on the rural past that Britain has left behind and the simpler but more fulfilling way of life lost with it. But Harris remains unblinkered about the problematic nature of that lifestyle and the costs of absenting yourself entirely from the world beyond. This Young Vic production exposes some of the unresolved thinking that sits around Harris play but with so many contrasting malevolent forces cutting through the lives of these characters, it will also keep you riveted in your seat wondering how it will all end.
Further Than the Furthest Thing is at the Young Vic until 29 April with tickets from £10. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog