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NB: as of 23 September 2008, all new artSMart articles are being published on the site news.artsmart.co.za.

FURTHER THAN THE FURTHEST THING (article first published : 2001-07-7)

“Christ weeps for Tristan, last stronghold of simplicity where now a pagan culture comes on fast, destroying faith and charity” are lines from a poem about the remote island of Tristan da Cunha set in the middle of the Atlantic.

Written in 1949, the poem is by the Reverend Dennis Wilkinson who was posted there as an Anglican priest soon after the Second World War. His granddaughter Zinnie Harris drew on the family’s memories of the time they spent there, to write Further than the Furthest Thing.

The play deals with life on the island in the year 1961 when the volcano erupted and the entire 170-strong community was evacuated to Southampton. A much inbred society, the people represented an odd hybrid of cultures and periods – part Napoleon, part Victorian. Living is basic without electricity; clothing is homespun and quaint with both sexes wearing long white stockings; the language sounds like early Cornish and the diet consists of a lot of potatoes.

There are five characters – the doughty Mill Lavarello, her husband Bill, her nephew Francis and the girl he loves, Rebecca, as well as businessman Mr Hansen who comes to the island to build a crayfish-bottling factory but remains involved with the community in Southampton.

Director Irina Brown has created a spell-binding play in this co-production between the Tron Theatre Company, Glasgow, and the Royal National Theatre currently playing the Standard Bank National Arts Festival in Grahamstown.

Performances are excellent all round. David Burke is rock-solid in his sympathetic portrayal of Bill, a simple man with two secrets that are slowly destroying him. Mairead McKinley is spunky and determined as the unwed mother who takes the terrible decision to destroy her offspring. As Francis, Gary McInnes keeps a nice balance between the island boy and a young man determined to better himself. Paul Shelley extracts a gentle humour from the complex role of Mr Hansen, frustrated at the lack of sophistication of the islanders yet admiring their simplicity.

But blazing forth as the star of the show is Paolo Dionisotti - utterly superb in her portrayal of Mill, a feisty and fiercely protective wife who finds life in England inexplicable and soulless. She’s as determined as a small terrier in pursuing a subject that’s important to her, whether it be pinnawin (penguin) eggs or returning to the island to see for herself if it’s buried or not. Her illogicalities and inconsequential remarks are delightful. Like Mr Hansen, you can only adore her.

Equal accolades must go to designer Niki Turner for a splendid set. Also to lighting designer Neil Austin and sound designer Duncan Chave for creating exciting visuals and atmospheres, particularly in the impressive eruption and boiler explosion scenes.

Further than the Furthest Thing is brought to South Africa with the assistance of the British Council, Standard Bank and the Scottish Arts Council. If you get a chance to see this extraordinary production when it plays the Baxter Theatre, State Theatre or the Market Theatre, grab the opportunity! – Caroline Smart




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