Review: Fiji Land, Southwark Playhouse

Three men work in perpetual shifts, supervising the control of thirty-six potted plants that are arranged in a grid across the set. When the alarms sound, someone must water every row – except the last one. That’s orders.
 A canny team of designers dance with the central conceit at the heart of Nick Gill’s surreal play, which draws a parallel between kept plants and war prisoners. With a sharpness that compliments the play’s starkly episodic format, Tom Wickens’s crisp lighting design and Max Pappenheim’s filthily industrial soundscape charge up a buzzing electrical jail. On top of the bare neon strips that mirror the rows of plants, uncomfortably bright spotlights shine an invasive edge onto the production. Ruth Hall’s set, comprised of functional beige tiles and white, easily-wiped plastic sheets supports this sinister vibe, sitting on the evocative border between greenhouse and torture room.
In its smartly executed interpretation of Fiji Land’s core metaphor, this production by Three Streets Productions makes some rather compelling comments on the injustice committed in times of war. There’s a crackling elasticity in the performances of the three actors, Jack Ferretti, Stephen Bisland and Matthew Trevannion, and the taut qualities of their predicaments are neatly orchestrated. Eventually, as two of the obedient workers drift into polarised states of hot and cold, the performances become hyperbolic mime; but, in a play electrified by quick shutdowns, our trio works its way through a vibrant choreography of gestures under Alice Malin’s knowing direction.
Trangressions such as rape, incineration and neglect are conducted with an authorised, bureaucratic ease, leaving potted plants as the muted victims. For a while, the anonymity at play is distressing. As one row of plants is neglected, seemingly arbitrarily, the injustice of war and the dangers of blindly following orders are craftily illuminated; with the exception of a fleeting criticism of Nazi compliance, the workers dutifully act out the commands of an unseen greater power with little resistance.
There’s horror in a form of warfare that gives us no faces to blame, but Gill leaves us more to think about, rooting his play in Abu Ghraib, the prison at the centre of a string of human rights abuses in 2003 and 2004. Just as naked prisoners were forced into human pyramids and photographed, potted plants are posed in towers; while American soldiers of the 320th Military Police Battalion raped and neglected their inmates, characters here abuse their horticultural wards.
Leaves are torn and roots ripped from soil but – crucially – plants can’t be humiliated, and the simplistic way in which they can either be dead or alive does not communicate the scandal’s spirals of neglect and humiliation. As a result, Fiji Land inadequately represents the horror and the shame of Abu Ghraib, and the cold nature of its injustices. In shining the spotlight on plants not people, Gill’s play skirts over one of the most troubling elements of the Abu Ghraib torture: the violation of the human body. It is not insignificant that the most affecting act of physical violence in this play is not against the victims of the story. Instead, it is seen as one of the guards cuts into another’s eye socket in a homespun attempt at lobotomy. Before, real crimes were represented through figurative methods; here, the most metaphorical application of brutality draws gasps from the audience. Something is lost in this reversal.
What happened at Abu Ghraib is troubling not because of how faceless central control was implemented, but in how unthinkable tortures were committed by humans who posed – with thumbs up – next to their victims. These soldiers, far from being mere agents for a greater power, were individuals with relatable names and dates of birth and Wikipedia pages. While named in the play script, our guards are referred to on stage with such general titles as ‘the first guy’ or ‘your son’. By transforming the victims into plants and giving the guards a veil of anonymity the play lessens the impact of a horrendous scandal that hinges on personal choice.
First published by Don’t Do It Magazine: http://dontdoitmag.co.uk/2014/02/fiji-land-southwark-playhouse-jan-27/
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