Pros: I absolutely loved the lighting and design that transformed the theatre space into a bleak and grim prison cell.
Cons: The performance lacked a coherent, thought-provoking message that would have made up for the unpleasant, gory moments.
An oppressive concrete room is glaringly lit by cold, harsh tube lights. Paint is peeling in corners and has been carelessly covered up with duct tape. Six rows of small pot plants sit neatly on makeshift tables, watched over by three nameless guards. In this room, nasty things happen – victims are sexually assaulted; they are water boarded and forced into unnatural constellations. They are verbally abused, starved and tormented. Playwright Nick Gill has created a clever allegory in which a nursery becomes a concentration camp and pot plants are transformed into silent prisoners.
Despite this forceful premise, Fiji Land remains bland and unemotional, and does not succeed in conveying a deeper meaning. There are several issues with the performance that even the brilliant acting by Stephen Bisland, Jake Ferretti and Matthew Trevannion can’t make up for. Firstly, while I think the use the allegory is an interesting one (and I certainly would not want the plants to be replaced by people), it removes the human and more shocking elements, and does not do justice to the horrors of a concentration camp. Again, I would not have wanted the performance to be more lifelike or realistic, but I just feel that this is such a severe and grim topic that replacing humans with spiritless weeds is somewhat problematic, and takes away the whole hideous psychological element of a prison camp.
Secondly, I could not identify a coherent message to take away with me. The torture of the plants does not lead anywhere, and I kept waiting for a grand ending that would tie together all the loose strings. There is some conversation among the guards about following orders without questioning them, but even as they talk about the lessons of the post-Nazi era they do as they’re told, and it is not clear why.
Towards the end of the play, the two Other Guys – the ones who follow orders from the clipboard-carrying First Guy – increasingly descend into mental disorder, exemplified by their contrasting reactions to the temperature in the cell as one of them freezes and the other one sweats. However, this does not lead to an analysis about the fine balance between prison guards and prisoners or the psychological strain that guards are subject to, but becomes almost comic as the cold guard starts building an igloo and the other one sits around in a Hawaii shirt. The pinnacle of strangeness is when one guard graphically stabs the other one’s eye out, and I’m still not sure why it was necessary for me to witness that.
While I did find some real problems with the performance, I cannot end without praising Max Pappenheim’s eerie and powerful soundscape that accompanies the play, Ruth Hall’s brilliant design (I did feel as though I were in a prison cell – even the musty smell worked!) and Tom Wicken’s forceful lighting. With a bit more work on the themes and the plot, this performance could be really good.
Author: Nick Gill
Director: Alice Malin
Producer: Three Streets Productions
Box Office: 020 7407 0234
Booking Link: http://southwarkplayhouse.co.uk/index.php/the-little/fiji-land/
Booking Until: 8th February 2014