8 September 2017 •
The Possibility of the Impossible: Clare SlaterIt was three years ago that I first read José Saramago’s story, The Tale of the Unknown Island. It’s 28 pages long. So, perhaps more precisely, it’s 28 pages short. When I finished it, I started breathing again.
I hadn’t read any of Saramago’s work before. He was a Nobel prize-winning novelist, a son of landless peasants, a vocal atheist, a philosophical Communist, an opinionated feminist and inspiring public speaker. After decades as a car mechanic, metal-worker and revolutionary journalist, he started writing fiction in his 50s. He went on to become a titan of Portuguese literature. Saramago died in 2010 at the age of 87.
I’ve now devoured many of his novels and, with each one, my world seems to open up a little more. In 1998 the Nobel committee praised his “parables sustained by imagination, compassion and irony” and his “modern scepticism” about official truths. His free, sparsely punctuated, “continuous flow” writing style combines flights of fancy with the banal routines of life. As Saramago himself said, “My work is about the possibility of the impossible.”
He’s perhaps most famous for Blindness, which was made into a film by Fernando Meirelles. He became infamous in Portugal for his controversial The Gospel According to Jesus Christ. His lonely love story, All The Names, will break even the stoniest of hearts. But it’s this little known truth-teller, The Tale of the Unknown Island, which I find the hardest to forget.
I can remember the excited knot in my stomach when I first closed the small book. This gift of a story needed to be shared; it needed to be told. It read like a script, begging for actors and an audience. So I sent it straight to Ellen McDougall, the exceptional director (and now, these few years later, Artistic Director of the Gate Theatre in Notting Hill). Ellen and I had worked together before so I knew her tastes for world-provoking, imagination-fuelling theatre, and I her knew her ability to get under the skin of a text, to repurpose it with actors, and to present it back to an audience in order to ask a refreshed set of questions. I hoped she’d fall in love with this story too. She did.
And so we began to investigate this tale. What happens when a man asks the king for a boat? When he won’t take no for an answer? What do we all need in order to be brave? Can any of us imagine a new way of living? Is it possible to take a leap of faith? Or are we perpetually stuck in the old story?
Under Ellen’s guidance, and with our wonderful company of fearless and exploratory actors, The Unknown Island is now finding life on stage at the Gate. Before rehearsals began, I met with Margaret Jull Costa, latterly Saramago’s English translator, and an award-winning wordsmith in her own right. She was delighted that this rebellious story was getting the attention it deserves. She met the man himself a number of times and passed on many valuable insights into his politics that have emboldened our devised adaptation process. And she gave us this present: she told me that Saramago wrote all of his stories imagining they were being read out loud. Of course! Their inherent theatricality isn’t an accident. He was a man of crowds, who understood how to spread ideas through the collective imagination.
Novelist Helder Macedo said of Saramago his starting point was never “once upon a time” but instead “what if?” Our hope is that this adaptation encourages audiences to dare ask themselves the same question.
Clare Slater is the dramaturg for The Unknown Island.