Director Jessica Lazar spoke to Love London Love Culture about Atticist’s upcoming return to the King’s Head Theatre with its production of Outlying Islands . 

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Hi Jessica, thanks so much for talking to me. What can you tell me about Outlying Islands? It’s 1939. Two young ornithologists arrive on a remote island in the Outer Hebrides. They’ve been ordered by ‘The Ministry’ to conduct a study of the bird population, so they will be spending three months, 40 miles from the nearest inhabited land, with no radio, no boat, and only the island’s leaseholder and his niece for company. In this strange isolation, they find themselves drawn to the wild power of the place – and they also begin to suspect that their mission is not all it seems. As clouds of war gather over Europe, a strange little society perched on a rocky outcrop in the North Atlantic has to decide its fate. A survey of the birds becomes a survey of the soul, and thousands of lives hang in the balance.

What particularly struck you about the story that made you want to direct this production? This is David Greig at his most remarkable and brilliant best: funny and profound, finding the epic in the everyday and never shying away from the comedy inherent in that. It’s beautifully written, and it has a cracking plot. We are pulled between two wildly different worlds, and what begins in slapstick ends in passionate, truthful drama. When I first read Outlying Islands, I was lost to the world for the duration: something I’ve heard several other people experienced too. It also has unexpected resonances in 2019 which aren’t immediately obvious, but which I’m excited to explore.

Given the fact Outlying Islands is inspired by true events did you do any background research into the stories on which it was based to give additional depth and understanding in the production? Outlying Islands weaves together strands inspired by several different real-life narratives, so we’re rooted in Greig’s text rather than his sources. Having said that, and without wanting to give too much away, the creative team have looked at a lot about a certain island and the things that happened there… The memoir Island Going has also been important: it retells the true adventures of ornithologists Robert Atkinson and John Ainslie around the islands off the north-west of Scotland in the mid-1930s and 1940s, and the lives of the people they met there. Island Going is also full of wonderful photographs, and (as I’m usually inspired by images as much as by text) these have been integral to my understanding of the play and my vision for it — alongside other key visuals, including the art of Norman Ackroyd RA. More generally, our set and costume designer Anna Lewis is familiar with the Hebrides, and one of the cast is currently out there, speaking to as many people as she can find and taking photos of puffins…

What do you hope that audiences will take away from Outlying Islands? David Greig is a masterful playwright, and this is a great opportunity to see one of his lesser-known pieces: it hasn’t been on in London for almost 20 years but was a huge success at the Royal Court. I hope the audience will feel they have been part of a highly theatrical experience that is powerful yet intimate. I hope it provokes thought and debate: about concepts of individualism and society; about the oppression and expectations of sexual identity and sexuality; about isolationism and patriotism; about the place of nature and wildness in the industrialised world…

What can audiences expect from this production? It will definitely make you laugh, and it might make you cry. Greig’s incredibly beautiful and incredibly witty writing makes for a passionately compelling evening. To that, I hope we will add our company’s signature ensemble style to a play which may not traditionally be viewed as an ensemble piece. Do not expect a costume drama. Outlying Islands is, in parts, really shocking, and constantly contemporary. Expect theatre. Expect beauty. Expect surprises.

By Emma Clarendon 

Outlying Islands will play at the King’s Head Theatre from the 9th January until the 2nd February. For more information visit:  http://www.kingsheadtheatre.com/

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