Zinnie Harris’s second play ‘Further than the Furthest Thing’ isn’t necessarily a masterpiece. But there’s much about it that is still compelling, and once it gets going Jennifer Tang’s Young Vic revival feels intensely worthwhile.
The 1999 drama is based on real-life 1961 events on the extremely remote British territory of Tristan da Cunha, a far-flung group of volcanic islands midway between South America and Africa.
As the play begins, wayward son of the island Francis (Archie Madekwe) has returned after a spell working in South Africa. He has been raised by his formidable aunt Mill (Jenna Russell) and on-edge uncle Bill (Cyril Nri), two idiosyncratic island folk who speak with endearingly idiosyncratic accents as they fret over the three eggs (‘h’eggs’) that Mill has acquired by way of a celebration of Francis’s return.
The young man has brought a guest: creepy, vulpine South African glass jar magnate Mr Hansen (Gerald Kyd), whose haughty mainland demeanour gets him off to a rocky start with Mill and Bill. But he ultimately wows them: with some nifty magic tricks, and with a proposal that he’ll bring industry to the island by opening a crawfish processing plant.
There’s a rambling quality to the first half, which sets the play up as a showdown between salt-of-the-earth islanders and the sharp-suited representative of Big Jar.
Tang’s fitfully bombastic staging, with an extremely nifty eco-friendly, amphitheatre-style set from Soutra Gilmour, teeters between viscerally entertaining and a bit overegged. Ian William Galloway’s dramatic video projections are cool; I was a bit vague on the logic of throwing live vocalist Shapla Salique into the mix – her yearning, wordless Eastern-inflected melodies are impressive, but it seems like an odd additional cultural element to throw into the mix.
Towards the end of the first half, the island’s volcano erupts, which sets up the much stronger second half. Here the islanders have been relocated to England, working in one of Hansen’s factories. It’s not a life they enjoy: ‘puddings and the Queen and football matches and puddings’ sighs Mill of early ’60s Britain.
What changes is Hansen: he is set up as a two-dimensional capitalist villain, but is ultimately shown to be a man whose ruthless exterior conceals fundamental decency. As the islanders start asking questions about when they can go home, it’s his struggle with his conscience over whether to tell them the truth that serves as the play’s engine. His uncertainty stands in stark contrast to Russell’s excellent, force of nature turn as Mill. In one extraordinary monologue, she describes everything she can remember about the island: can a destroyed place exist if only as a memory? Perhaps to her it can.
Ultimately it feels a little sophomoric. There are two subplots about terrible buried secrets that must eventually come to light. The play would be brisker and stronger if you cut the younger characters (Francis and Kirsty Rider’s Rebecca) out entirely, as they’re not really given a huge amount to do. As far as I can tell, Harris has maybe sexed up real historical events in a way that maybe feels a bit lurid.
For all that, it’s an eventually gripping almost true tale, the odd clunky moment easily compensated for by the dreamy poetry of Harris’s writing.