Cluster Bomb [Collective]’s working of I AM/THE ISL∆ND at Camden People’s Theatre, which is part of the SPRINT 2015 programme, draws on a narrative that is as much a part of J G Ballard’s novel Concrete Island – on which this performance (the more dramatic iteration of a series) is a meditation – as it is of Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe; both are filled with tropes of domination/subjection and Self/Otherness.
In Robinson Crusoe, there is the idea of mastery, of both the self and of one’s environment. Crusoe is castaway upon an island, left ostensibly alone with himself. Through a mastery of the island he also slowly achieves self-mastery. However, this quickly becomes a negative feat in relation to others, especially when he famously sees the footprint in the sand. His achievement is at the expense of all externality, a retreat into the self. So much so that the island becomes his body, and any other who sets foot upon it is an intruder, his actions are like those of a body’s white blood cells mastering any microbial invasion. It is one thing to survive by being thrown upon oneself and all one’s strengths and weaknesses, but entirely another when that resolve comes face to face with the Other. It is this fragility of the I AM, the ego, that is brought out here.
As with Robinson Crusoe, Concrete Island is about the idea of the crises of the Self; an individual marooned both figuratively and literally. In this case the shipwrecked sailor is the embodiment of capitalist mentality in the form of the architect Robert Maitland, crashing his Jaguar into an everyday public space between the arteries of commuter traffic. By the fact of his injuries, as well as the pace and perhaps self-focussed character of his capitalist community, he is trapped on an isolated concrete island. This is a liminal space that he has intruded upon and which itself starts, unceasingly, to intrude upon him.
This theme of intrusion circulates throughout the text of Concrete Island, but is brought into sharp relief with Maitland’s desire for isolation. Indeed, as the grass continues to grow up through the concrete, slowly obliterating all traces of his crash; it more and more resembles his own re-mythologised childhood where he is playing by himself in a tall, fenced-off garden, happy in his absolute isolation.
There is a constant battle within himself for both an escape in order to return to his life, and that of remaining on the island and mastering it. Indeed, this reaches the point where the boundaries between his self and the island are indistinguishable from each other, as he ‘began to shuck off sections of his body’ as he traverses the island. And where ‘[t]hese places of pain and ordeal were now confused with pieces of his body’, where he proclaims aloud: ‘I am the island’. But then the footprint is seen, bruising the oily soil, the body of Maitland’s transubstantiated island.
Although at a short forty-five minutes, the performance successfully deals with these complex philosophical issues. And this motif of the projection of the self is effectively realised here, especially where Maitland is the crashed Jaguar, tyre spinning in the air in the hands of the performer, like it is he who is the wreak, spinning out of control.
He slowly traverses the space, desperate, waving impotently to disembodied voices in the distance. The space is not yet his, but the viscerality of Maitland’s movements embody a certain victimhood, a clinging to the raft of the life he had, and which he hopes to reclaim. This echoes the idea within the text of both a desperation for, and repulsion to, his life beyond the island. A continuous to-ing and fro-ing, where he ‘still wished to leave its green embrace’, but where he’ll ‘do it in his own time’. But this internal fight is complicated by the intrusion of others. The idealised re-imagining of his childhood garden is profaned by the arrival of the Other, who made the footprint.
He emerges from a tower of tyres, a Friday-like being, a misfit, not a part of Maitland’s world, but now through the circulation of spaces – inside/outside – begins a struggle with Maitland and this Other. A reverberation of Maitland’s own world of consumerist survival intrudes in an embittered struggle as if this fool is to blame for his fate. Although, in the text, Proctor, the fool, is at pains to keep Maitland on the island, so that his own little world is not taken away by the invasion of the authorities. It is perhaps more of a schizophrenic fight for the domination of the body.
In the text Proctor cannot stand written words, although he does speak. And in what at first seems to be a compassionate gesture from Maitland to teach him to write, it is rather a trick that results in a kind of re-Christening; he shows Proctor how to write his own name, but instead of Maitland writing P-R-O-C-T-O-R, he teaches him to write M-A-I-T-L-A-N-D H-E-L-P. He writes this all over the island, unknowingly marking Maitland’s domination, and gradually wiping away his own name like the waves diminishing the outline of Friday’s footprint in the sand on Crusoe’s island.
In the performance, however, this fool does not write, cry out, or speak, although Maitland ousts him from his home, his Michelin tower, through his offer of a dinner jacket. He retreats to the edges of the island, circumnavigating Maitland’s helpless anger, until his ultimate subjugation at the end. However, the voices are purposely kept at one remove, separate from the immediacy, enhancing a kind of gravitational pull on us towards the physicality of the performance. It is almost as if we are being drawn into Maitland, into an absolute immanence, where as he retreats deeper and deeper into his self, we are dragged along, until voices of others resonate from a distance, as if hearing them at the end of a long dark tunnel.
There is a voice that does come along, more immanent, in the form of Jane Sheppard, equally an enigma, damaged, but shining forth with a lamp and car exhaust staff, like a shamanka emerging from her sacred temple. She cleanses the constellation of wounds upon Maitland’s body, shares herself with him. But in return, instead of facing the world with his opened self (a kind of Bataillean ecstasy), the tender offering he has had is perverted in return, almost as if to rinse away every last note of this other’s voice which calls to him, which intrudes deep within.
In the text, Jane is a misfit with society, at odds with Maitland, and a companion to Proctor. But then as Maitland increasingly exerts his mastery, Proctor’s loyalties shift away from Jane. Like Prospero’s control of the elemental Ariel through his books of magic, Maitland exerts his will over that of Proctor. Suffice to say that it does not end well. With the ultimate death of Proctor, Jane flees the island that is no longer her home. Maitland is left with all intrusion wiped away; sovereign of his self. The text ends with Maitland feeling no real need to leave – showing him his absolute domination of the island at last. It is as if these others are equally representative of the parts of his body that he has shucked off; discarded parts of a chrysalis on his way to a metamorphosis. However, the performance does not end in some kind of ecstatic affirmation of self-mastery. Rather, there is a disquiet that we are left with, that wordlessly communicates the cost of such mastery of oneself at the expense of others.
There are points in Ballard’s text where gravestones are glimpsed through the tall grass. And it is in a crypt that Proctor is buried, along with bits and pieces from Maitland’s crashed car. He may have buried his past, but it is still there, and perhaps we might say that this crypt is ultimately a reminder that the self, so hard fought for, is fragile and temporary. Certainly, Maitland will leave in his own time, as these gravestones attest.
This performance draws you into a self in crises, brought through a momentum, or perhaps a gravity, that leaves us in the audience feeling in-between, feeling like intruders upon the island. As the philosopher Heidegger says, we may be alone but our very Being is to be with others in the world, and this is why one cannot help but intrude upon another and they the same. This is what Cluster Bomb conveyed most effectively: that we become shipwrecked upon the shores of each other when we are thrown from out of ourselves and into the world as it is. I am left with a sense of uncanniness and disquiet although thankfully not with a crisis of self. It will be interesting to see how this working develops into its final iterations.