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Ellen McDougall directs her first piece as artistic director of the Gate Theatre as she (with Clare Slater) adapts Portuguese writer José Saramago’s short story, The Tale of the Unknown Island. We spoke to actor Jon Foster, who appeared in McDougall’s production of Othello at Shakespeare’s Globe, to get to know a bit more about the production.
The Unknown Island is a new piece, what is it about?
Good question. First off, it’s based on a short story by a writer called José Saramago. It sets itself up as if it’s going to be a classic, swash-buckling sea adventure, but then we start to discover the voyage the main character is taking isn’t as literal as you might assume. It’s quite hard to explain what it’s about really, but it’s a very beautiful, slight story that catches you by surprise. It’s quite silly and absurd, but it’s deeply profound as well.
None of the characters have any names – that’s how it’s written. Our main protagonist is a man who goes to the king to ask for a boat. There’s another character who comes along with him, and it’s their story. I don’t want to give too much away.
Were you familiar with the story before you began rehearsals?
I worked on this with Ellen McDougall [director] about a year ago. We workshopped it at the National’s studios. Most people in the cast have also done a few workshops before too, so they knew it too. It’s a very shot piece of work, it’s less than 30 pages so you can read through it in about 45 minutes. As soon as you finish, you think “I’m so moved, but I don’t know why”. And you want to get straight back into it. That meant everyone had read it quite a few times and have very different ideas of what it all meant.
It’s one of those stories that’s very open. All of the cast and creatives are familiar with the story before we started, and then we asked the question: “well, what’s this about?” Everyone has a different idea on what it is about, so it’s got a lovely open quality about it. It’s very easy to take things that are relevant to you personally from it.
Are you conscious about the audience having a similar experience with the play?
I hope so, that’s something we’re trying to really take care of. We don’t want to tell people ‘this is what it’s about’. We want to keep it open for everyone to make their own decisions about what it’s about.
It tends to skip along the surface. When I read it, I find it a bit funny and a bit silly, then all of a sudden I’m in tears with no idea how that happened. Everyone has had a different experience with it, and everyone had different moments that got hold of them. New moments are still coming up that absolutely floor you, moments that hadn’t resonated like that before. It’s a beautiful piece of work.
Do you think that will make audiences want to come back and experience it again?
I hadn’t thought of that. It would be lovely if people thought like that. The moment when it finishes, people might want to take that away and figure it out for themselves, or come back to it and experience it again. See it thought the lens of knowing the sole story.
What’s it been like working on the piece in the rehearsal room?
The process is really interesting because usually you turn up on the first day with your text and you know your role and your lines. But for us, our starting point was just this story. We’ve been taking the story and making it more theatrical, changing the form of it.
Do you enjoy working with Ellen?
This is the third proper production I’ve done with Ellen. I absolutely love working with her. She’s got such an excellent vision and she’s so open in the rehearsal room. Someone has to have the last word, but you never feel that you haven’t got the opportunity for to put forward new ideas, or to challenge ideas. Her spaces are always very creative rehearsal spaces. I really enjoy that.
Ellen’s got a great instinct for getting the right people in the room together. We’ve all got very different backgrounds as actors, but in a really brilliant way. It’s a very small cast, it’s very intense. I’ve worked with Thalissa Teixeira before – we just did Othello at the Globe together – but everyone’s very tight… for the time being…
It’s always a real mission because your head can be split between to places. I did a show at Tristan Bates, and then in the evenings I was doing a show in Oxford. I’d be leaving rehearsals an hour early and turning up for the show at the half. That was quite rock ‘n’ roll. Long, long days, but exciting.
Photo © Cameron Slater