Things have changed since I was a kid. Or teenager. (As you’d hope.) On wet sports afternoons at Marsden High, we were shown Carry On movies. I don’t know if this was for the students’, or teachers’ benefit. At worst, it was boring. And a lost opportunity to immerse us in truly edifying, memorable, even life-changing cinema. One of the mothers, though, thought it was a virtual obscenity and kicked-up, as I recall, enough of a stink as to see the Carry Ons carried off. For good.
There’s no such compunction in Fool’s Island, presented by the Sydney Theatre Company as part of its education program in conjunction with Tamarama Rock Surfers Theatre Company. It’s, at times, sexually and violently ‘explicit’. Certain of my media colleagues have suggested it as a kids’ show. Sure, take the kids, by all means. I don’t believe in censorship, anyway. But you’ll have to spend some time explaining and contextualising, I should think, depending on their age. As challenging ‘junior fiction’, though, it’s right on. And as an all ages gig, it’s even better.
A veritable voice of God, albeit with a better, less cruel and cynical sense of humour, booms out of the darkness, introducing us to a deserted island, on which, it’s rumoured, reside two twins; one good, one not so good. The twins, I understand, have been shipwrecked. Spaceshipwrecked. They hail from an asteroid; in a galaxy far far away, one presumes. (Actually, no, that’s astronomically incorrect. It will have been from the neighbourhood, near the sun.) One’s a real space cadet. A clown. The other, a nasty piece of work, in the way of noir stereotypes. He might as well be called Asteroidal Al, after Capone.
We find the first dragging himself, as if having just emerged from the primordial soup, like a fish, struggling to evolve into a lizard, or big, or something; whatever works, Darwinically-speaking. The evolutionary process has been Kitchen Whizzed, so that the clown soon, if gradually and awkwardly, finds his feet. He is upright, in a veritable paradise. That’s, of course, when all the trouble starts. But not half so as when he moves past blabbering to a semblance of language: first Italian, then French and, finally, taking his cure from the audience, English. And he’s a clever clown ’cause, from the first, he’s quoting, or subverting, Shakespeare. Clever clown indeed: Darren Gilshenan is inestimably, consummately surpassing, in the degree of a Roberto Benigni, Chaplin, Lloyd, or, domestically, a Mo (Roy Rene, not half of the iconic ad duo). His capacity for note-perfect physical comedy is, literally, boundless.
But even the degree of Gilshenan’s brilliance would be as nothing if not for a script that harnesses his talents and, though (entertainingly) meandering, goes somewhere. It goes a long way past the island, back to the biblical garden. The only trouble and strife here is a tree with chalked-on feminine features, so at least the clown’s trouble is all of his own volition. It transpires, of course, the island isn’t populated by twin intragalactic refugees, but only the clown, whose bipolarity comes as a surprise to him, as much as anyone.
Jo Turner’s pedantically nuanced direction shines as brightly as Gilshenan’s performance. No opportunity has been missed. Lurking up in the clouds, above and behind the stage, is composer Rose Turtle Ertler, a veritable Foley artist for the night, providing inventive, comical sound effects right on cue. She’s integral to the quality of the performance; in fact, a performer in her own right, completely at one with Gilshenan.
Jasmine Christie’s design is simple, magical, storybook tongue-in-chic. Cardboard waves. A faux mound for an island. A coconut palm. A pet rock. It puts a smile on your face the moment you take your seat. You wouldn’t be Robinson Crusoe in observing its sheer cuteness.
The beauty (or one of the manifold beauties) of Fool’s Island is its generosity to the audience. What do I mean? Well, if you’re a Hillsinger, or other fundamentalist nutter, you can focus on the biblical allusions: the garden; good and evil. If you’re a child, you’ll be amenable, susceptible and, probably, utterly spellbound by a simple story well-told by an engaging, funny man. If the parent of a child, you may be saddened by the loss of innocence it describes; mourning your own and anticipating your child’s. The work also disarms us of any pretensions, since it dares to sit Shakespeare right next to slapstick. ‘Ah, there’s the rub!’ But with no friction; they co-exist as if born on the same day. And, perhaps, if were to take ourselves back to the heady days of the original Globe, we’d realise they were.
It would be more than enough if Gilshenan’s only claim to fame (and he definitely has one, on the strength of this performance alone) was appearing as the fool. But he’s also co-written this work, with Chris Harris. It is admirable on so many levels. First of all, it’s imbued with genuinely childlike imagination. Second of all, it alludes to other arts, like cinema. Third of all, it has the temerity to introduce the farcical to the finery of ye olde Bill. Fourthly, it is conceptually, narratively and theatrically sophisticated, yet utterly accessible.
“Comedy is based on pain and truth. The further you go into the dilemma of a character, the funnier it is for an audience.” Gilshenan has proven himself correct. Fool’s Island has pain, truth and comedy; far from mutually exclusive, they go hand-in-hand.
You’d be foolish indeed to miss Fool’s Island.
The details: Fool’s Island plays the Sydney Theatre Company’s Wharf 2 until August 17. Tickets on the STC website.