There is only the actor, the stage, and two wooden crates. It’s all the piece requires. In Île, Sophie Joans takes us from Cape Town to Mauritius through a series of humorous and incisive narrative accounts of her family, her heritage and the legacies of colonialism.
It’s a hell of a play. Joans leads with a brief social and geographical history of Mauritius. Tectonic plates shift and grind, palm trees proliferate, dodos plod along happily (albeit briefly), and then a whole bunch of people show up and the island becomes contested land. Somewhere in the latter part of this short, sharp retelling of events lies the emotional kernel of the play. In Île, Joans is forever returning to her ancestry – a messy affair involving settlement, migration, colonisation, lingering guilt, and a bristling matrilineal line that runs throughout the play.
This heavy history, though, is hilariously retold. Addressing the audience throughout, Joans has a remarkable presence on stage and much of Île’s narrative is communicated through her discerning physicality, coupled with a penchant for familiar and engaging storytelling. The writing is superb. It’s fast, funny, and able to turn on a dime – from the outrageous and the absurd, to moments of striking sincerity.
She also manages to pinpoint the universal in the anecdotal, neatly wrapped up in evocative and conversational vignettes. There are the stories of her strange (and somewhat incestuous) French family, her hotheaded relationship with her mother, and her calculated teenage rebellion.
The writing also veers towards the surreal at times, turning feverish, evocative, and dreamlike. These moments are well-placed and draw their power from an enduring refrain – rage. “Sometimes I feel like there’s lava dripping down my maternal line,” she says. It’s a brilliant moment, enhanced by discerning lighting which sees her plunging into a deep, dark sea.
Île’s narrative lens doesn’t provide a comprehensive view of Mauritius’ history (sweeping fields of sugarcane are referenced while the legacy of indentured labour is not), but it does provide a focused one. It’s a play that excavates and animates the aforementioned matrilineal lines as a point of connection, a search for one’s personal history in order to better make sense of the present. We’re just along for the journey, and happily so.
Île is on at the Gymnasium every day until 1 July.
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