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outlying islands

26 march 2020

Back in the days when retail shopping was a thing – a few weeks ago – I picked up a copy of David Greig's Selected Plays, 1999-2009 for a dollar or two in a thrift store. I found the first play in the collection, San Diego (2003) to be intriguing but rather manic and unfocused; its combination of shock effects and elaborate rhetoric seemed to come from somewhere between Tony Kushner and Martin McDonagh, and though I can see the play might be absorbing in the right production, it doesn't lend itself to coherent discussion. (Such as I can manage at the best of times.)

Outlying Islands (2002), though, is tightly constructed and just as intriguing. It's just before the second world war; everyone knows that war is imminent. Two naturalists, John and Robert – respectively Scottish and English – come from the mainland to do an inventory of bird species on the remotest conceivable Scottish island. The only locals are a "tacksman" named Kirk, who holds the lease on the island and grazes sheep there; and Kirk's young, attractive niece Ellen. John and Robert are single, straight, and lonely. And though they are quite different – John virginal and shy, Robert Byronic and impulsive – they are both drawn to Ellen, who is in turn drawn to both of them. And both John and Robert are eager to save the island's ecosystem from what they suspect are the nefarious designs of their own government.

Kirk has different ideas. He is all for trashing the island and all its animal inhabitants, if the price is right. The island is a pagan place anyway, according to the puritanical Kirk, and his missions in life are to purify the island and make sure Ellen is soon immured in a financially stable, sex-negative marriage.

One can spot certain conflicts arising, but I could not have predicted how Greig would work them out. For a director and cast, Outlying Islands must be a treat. It has strong, idiosyncratic characters, and despite lugubrious incidents, there's a great deal of slapstick humor, a splash of romantic comedy, and some really affecting interpersonal exchange.

The slapstick is even a kind of meta-slapstick. Ellen has seen one film in her sheltered life, a Laurel & Hardy comedy. She sees her young visitors as "Laurel and Laurel," and is erotically charged by their tenderness and their awkwardness. The result is a troubling, indelible drama that grabs emotions even as it works through some very topical 21st-century ideas about the environment, war, and clashes of cultures.

Greig, David. Outlying Islands. 2002. In Selected Plays, 1999-2009. London: Faber, 2010. 123-232.