INTERVIEW: Jessica Lazar on Exploring Outlying Islands

Posted: December 29, 2018 in Theatre

It is quite a distance from the East End of London to the remote islands of the Hebrides, but director Jessica Lazar and her Atticist theatre company are making exactly that journey. Last year they staged Steven Berkoff’s East at London’s King’s Head Theatre and they are now working on a revival, at the same theatre, of Outlying Islands by Scottish playwright David Greig, who is currently Artistic Director of the Royal Lyceum Theatre in Edinburgh. Breaking the journey, Jessica crossed paths with The Reviews Hub’s Stephen Bates at London’s National Theatre.

Atticist began life on a high with Saki, which won the Carol Tambor Best of Edinburgh Award at the 2015 Fringe Festival and later transferred to Off-Broadway. “Atticist is a group of like-minded individuals who came together for the explicit purpose of putting on Saki” Jessica explains, continuing: “initially there were absolutely no plans to turn it into a company with a long-term artistic development…there was no grand plan at the start…we found just how well we worked together” 

Atticist became an associate company of the King’s Head as a result of the reactions to East, which was found to be drawing in new audiences. On the surface, the company’s work seems very diverse, but Jessica counters that impression, explaining: “we have a sense of style…we have a very strong sense of the company’s stylistic identity; what really appeals to us…is magical realism in the theatre…grabbing something and attacking a subject… perhaps through a prism that is not entirely naturalistic – ensemble based (theatre) that is often quite highly physical, but using whatever story-telling method we believe is most appropriate for the particular story we are trying to tell and being open; we started with new writing and then moved to two revivals, but we’ve been working on further new writing that we’re hoping to put on in 2019; it takes a long time to make something good”.

Outlying Islands looks set to stretch the company’s philosophy further than before, particularly bearing in the mind the constraints imposed by a small pub theatre.  “One of the early stage directions is the sound of a thousand seabirds and the sheer noise of the place is very important toning; the design is…quite heavily based on the sketches of Norman Ackroyd”.

The play premiered in 2002 at the Traverse Theatre in Edinburgh, before transferring to the Royal Court Theatre in London. It tells the story of two ornithologists, one from Cambridge and the other from Edinburgh, spending three months in the Summer of 1939 on a Hebridean island to conduct a bird count. When there, they meet with the island lease-holder and his young niece. So what drew Atticist to the play? “ It’s the favourite play of someone in the company” Jessica explains, adding “I really like David Greig as a playwright, I think he’s an extraordinary writer…very, very witty. I admire the fact that he can see the world in a grain of sand, I think he’s a brilliant” 

Praise indeed, but Jessica has yet to meet the writer face-to-face. “We’ve spoken, but never met and it was a very inspiring conversation” she says “but it also filled me with confidence that we were going on a track that would work; he said that he was no longer the playwright who wrote this play…he doesn’t want to tell us anything that we would feel bound by…he’s interested in seeing what we make of it”.

Four characters on an island sounds a little like Agatha Christie and Jessica admits that not everyone makes it out alive. So would she class the play as a thriller? “Thriller, love triangle, very, very funny” she replies; it ranges from very subtle dry humour to frankly slapstick, a lot of surrealism…it all straddles two worlds and it moves from one world to another world, from something that begins with slapstick and ends with this wild passionate unexpected epic. Greig’s got an amazing talent for finding the epic in the every day and the epic in the small situations, but he’s never afraid of the comedy in the grand scheme … within the tragedy of life”.

The comedy and the drama in the play emerge from friction between the characters. Jessica explains: “very quickly everybody begins to be changed or drawn to something by the wildness and the isolation of the island; it’s absolutely mystical…while they’re there, they start to be drawn not only to the island but to each other, tensions crackle, boundaries start to come down, all of the rules that are set on the mainland begin to fade away and the possibility of a new society starts to bubble up in all its many different forms”. 

Jessica believes that the play also touches upon conservation issues that are relevant to the modern world. “It has very powerful resonances for ecological issues today…occasionally those are explicit, but really it’s more about personal responses to ideas of what constitutes value, I suppose what the world owes us and what we owe the world”. She continues: “There is a brilliant line in it when two of the characters have an argument about the phrase ‘supporting life’…so one of the ornithologists contends that the island is supporting life because it has a pristine habitat for a particular bird and it’s untouched… one of the other character counters that supporting life would be selling the island to buy a herring drifter and live in relative comfort when otherwise life is extremely difficult and they are picking a living from any way they can”.

There are no u-boats circling the island just yet, but Jessica notes  “an awareness of war that may or may not be coming”. Explaining the play further, she says: “it’s a mystery, but the mystery is resolved very quickly and it becomes something else…(the characters) discover something, conflicts emerge out of that discovery, dramatic, extraordinary conflicts, and, at that point, something extremely serious happens…and then it’s almost as if the handbrake comes off…everybody is completely liberated and responds in a way that we would never expect and the play passes over into questions that are no longer about conservation and equality and patriotism (becoming) about the oppression and liberation of sexuality and what it might mean for the individual and what society ought to look like”. 

It all seems like a lot of themes to bring out with just 4 (or maybe 5?) characters. “This is why Greig is a genius” Jessica enthuses “because he does…it’s a very hard play to summarise in a sentence…it takes you from something that might look in the first five minutes as a period drama to something that is spectacularly strange, almost mythic, metaphysical, passionate, epic by the near end, passing though mystery and thriller and love story on the way”.

Jessica divides her time between Atticist and working as a freelance director. In 2018, she has directed For Reasons that Remain Unclear at the King’s Head and two productions at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. Also, she is currently assisting Maggie Norris at The Big House, a theatre charity that works with recent care leavers who are at very high risk of social exclusion; they get “four weeks of rehearsal, four weeks of performance, (they) are held to an incredibly high standard and all the production team are professionals”. On a wider front, she believes that “British theatre is in a pretty good place in terms of what is being created, but, in terms of funding, maybe not, because it’s a struggle”. Funding issues aside, Jessica’s enthusiasm is infectious and a conversation with her leaves a firm impression that she and others like her will leave the future of our theatre in safe hands.

This article was originally written for The Reviews Hub:

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