‘Islander’ is a Sea of Innovative Sound From Across the Atlantic

Kinnan is an island divided. Metaphorically, folklorically, and, it turns out, literally. When Islander begins, its inhabitants are engaged in a fierce debate over their future. Should they stay on their island and protect their traditional lifestyle, or accept government funds to relocate to the Mainland? Conceived and originally directed by Amy Draper, Islander is a Scottish folk musical that debuted at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in 2019, currently running at Chicago Shakespeare Theatre as part of its WorldStage Series. 

Islander follows fifteen-year-old Eilidh, the island’s only remaining youth, who discovers a beached baby whale. The whale’s death is followed shortly by the arrival of a mysterious stranger, Arran, who Eilidh suspects of being finfolk, a kind of faerie. Kinnan’s origin story tells of an island cleaved in two; half stays where it is, and the other floats out to sea. Arran is from Kinnan’s dislodged half, a floating island called Setasea, where islanders serve as whales’ guardians and follow them along their migratory routes. They aren’t finfolk, however. They’re flesh-and-blood humans. 

What makes Islander remarkable is its form: all of the characters are played by two actors who also live-mix the soundscape onstage using a sampler. In addition to the angsty teenagers, the actors bring the entire community of Kinnan to life. The play is performed by two rotating casts (Lois Craig played Eilidh and Julia Murray played Arran the night I saw the show, both were stellar).T hey create dazzling a capella harmonies and live foley: sounds of the sea and of a storm, and the haunting whalesong that becomes so key to the play’s dramaturgy.

Murray does the heavy lifting of character acting and comic relief, portraying a DJ who castigates her neighbors by name during her broadcast, Eilidh’s mum and gran, and a host of townsfolk. Craig also gets a few comedic nods, namely as Paul, an islander too fixated on the fact that garden gnome has gone missing to focus on the existential debate facing the rest of the town. There’s a charming number called “Spikkin” that takes place during a town hall to debate the proposed resettlement. The number’s gleeful mayhem belies the fact that the town’s attrition has created real problems, for example, there’s no doctor to deliver a baby that’s due any day!

Sylvie Stenson as Eilidh and Stephanie MacGaraidh as Arran in ‘Islander’. Photo by Steve Tanner.

The creative team has made the savvy choice to let sound steal the show. Emma Bailey’s scenic design is an abstract set piece that at moments evokes a seaside cliff, a sinking ship, and heartbreakingly, a whale carcass. Eve Nichol’s staging makes full use of the set, but mostly the two performers whirl around each other centripetally, clutching their microphones and keeping their live mixer close at hand. Finn Anderson is the music director, composer, lyricist, and loop station sound designer, creating a holistic aural experience. Allowing the mechanism of the magic to be so visible heightens the work’s theatricality and sharpens the focus on the actors’ crystalline voices. The bold formal choice is particularly resonant for the musical’s content; the ethereal vocals echo the mournful songs whales use to communicate with their pods.

 As Eilidh and Arran’s friendship blossoms into mutual trust, themes of isolation and exile reveal themselves to be a commonality between Arran and the whales. The whales are dying out, and so is the town. The parallels to Kinnan are clear.

This is the play’s true strength: the connection it draws between cultural extinction and species extinction. The cultural attrition of island life is a real part of Scotland’s history. In 1930, for example, the Outer Hebridean island of St. Kilda was evacuated after four thousand years of human habitation, and the island today serves as a conservation reserve for puffins and other seabirds. (This option is suggested for Kinnan by a well-intentioned Mainlander marine biologist during the Spikkin.) The Outer Hebrides continue to face population decline. But the islanders most impacted by climate change in the coming years will be low-lying atoll islands in the Pacific, which could be underwater by the end of the century due to rising sea levels. What Islander does, elegiacally, is show how the survival of the human and more-than-human world are bound up in each other.

Islander isn’t a play about the climate crisis, until it is. If I have one qualm about the play, it’s that the ending feels somewhat pat and unearned. In the final songs, the narrative, like the eponymous island, is divided as to whether it wants to bow to realism or yield to fantasy. It nods to the former, yet ultimately chooses the latter. That’s not an irredeemable flaw, though. It allows the audience to enter into a complicated conversation about the role of hopefulness in environmental stories. The satirical nihilism of a climate narrative like Netflix’s blockbuster Don’t Look Up may not elicit a more meaningful audience response than an overly-optimistic one. I don’t know that anyone knows how to end a climate story because we are still in the middle of our global climate change story. As I write this, COP28 rages on in Dubai, where the UAE hosts planned to negotiate oil deals. While reality provides such dystopianism, it is forgivable and perhaps desirable for theatre to provide some whimsical escapism. 

Folktales exist to pass down ancestral wisdom, to teach us how to create a future using stories from our mythic past. Let us allow tender legends like this one to guide us into new ecological narratives.

Islander runs at Chicago Shakespeare Theater through December 17th.

The actors in our featured photo L-R are Lois Craig and Julia Murray.

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Eilidh –  Lois Craig and Sylvie Stenson
Arran – Stephanie MacGaraidh and Julia Murray

Director/Conception – Amy Draper
Associate Director/Tour Staging – Eve Nicol
Book – Stewart Milton
Music & Lyrics – Finn Anderson
Scenic Designer – Emma Bailey
Lighting Designer – Simon Wilkinson
Costume Designer – Hahnji Jang
Sound Designer – Sam Kusnetz
Photography – Steve Tanner

Islander is produced in association with Setasea LLC, Helen Milne Productions, Theatre Royal Plymouth, and Dundee Rep Theatre.


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