by Richard Bean
Chichester / Globe co-production
Directed by Max Stafford-Clark
Minerva Theatre, Chichester
Saturday 30th August 2014, 14.30 matinee
The Mutiny on The Bounty story rolls on and on. HMS Bounty was out seeking breadfruit plants from Tahiti, thought to be a suitably cheap and nutritious food for slave plantations in the Caribbean. They failed to round Cape Horn after a month of trying, and had to take the long route round Africa and right across the Indian Ocean to the Pacific. Unsurprisingly, the crew got somewhat fed up and were delighted to land in Tahiti for several months of R&R. Then they set off to sea again. A ship’s mutiny aboard HMS Bounty happened three weeks later, in 1789. The mutiny was led by Marlon Brando, sorry, Fletcher Christian, and saw Captain Bligh cast adrift with his eighteen loyal crew members. The boat was so low in the water the ocean was virtually lapping in. Forty-seven days and 4,164 miles of navigation in the open Pacific took them to safety in Timor, where some of the survivors proceeded to get malaria and die. Bligh’s astonishing feat of navigation could not have been foreseen or imagined by the mutineers, who sailed to Tahiti, collected local women and men and sailed off to Pitcairn. Fourteen sailors were left on Tahiti, where they were discovered by HMS Pandora, sent out bent on retribution, in 1791. The ship took the fourteen aboard, then ran aground off Australia, losing four prisoners to the watery depths. The other ten reached England where three were hanged, three pardoned and the four who had wanted to go with Bligh acquitted … there had not been enough room in the lifeboat.
So it was a small group who reached Pitcairn where their descendants still live, and though they increased to 250 in the first century on the island, fewer than fifty remain. It’s only 2.5 square miles in size. When the mutineers reached Pitcairn, they torched The Bounty … oddly, as Robinson Crusoe had fictionally mined his shipwreck for years. However, they knew it was well worth the Royal Navy hunting them down to set an example, and having left fourteen men on Tahiti, they knew the story would get out, Bligh or no Bligh. So best to lose the evidence. As it happened it was twenty years before an American ship arrived, finding only one remaining mutineer with the Polynesians and lots of children. Currently two-thirds of the 21st century male population of Pitcairn are in prison on the island as sex offenders.
ON TO THE PLAY …
The crew arrive on Pitcairn: Haul Away!
Richard Bean has been a highly successful writer with One Man Two Guv’nors and The Heretics. The HMS Bounty mutineers of 1789, or at least Fletcher Christian, envisaged creating a Utopia, but it turned in this fictional re-imaging into an adult version of Lord of The Flies. While it’s based on history, nobody knows exactly what happened or why, it’s “part two” of a story that resonated for years in the popular imagination, and Richard Bean has free rein to decide what happens in his story, rather than being confined by history. For example, it’s known the island was populated by Polynesians in an earlier era but they died out or left. In this story, that means they had left the island covered with food plants. It boosts its Utopian nature.
It is a co-production with Shakespeare’s Globe, where it’s going right after Chichester. The connection between the two theatrical spaces is hard to see. The intimate dark space of the Minerva Theatre makes the set … with all its projected film of waves, seascapes, jungle, the Bounty in the bay, the Bounty on fire, a total eclipse of the sun … dominate the theatre. I don’t know how this will work confined to the central section of a Globe stage many times larger, with the set central, by the inner stage at the Globe, in broad daylight. I can’t see it, especially the crucial eclipse, but … it would be fascinating to see both.
A device in the play is having the two youngest Tahitians acting as narrators and interacting with the audience. The intimate close-up Minerva Theatre leaves spectators exposed as they answer the narrators. Everyone can see everyone. I assume the audience interaction questions (it’s NOT audience participation as other reviews suggest) will work better in the relaxed lively atmosphere of the standing groundlings at The Globe. So the Globe wins on audience interaction possibilities (and it’s probably why they’re there), the Minerva wins on atmospheric projection.
Fletcher Christian shortly after they arrive on Pitcairn
The play starts twenty years after that 1789 mutiny with the arrival of a Royal Navy search ship.This did not happen in reality … an American merchant ship was their first visitor on Pitcairn, but dramatically the “20 Years Later” section bookends the play, revolving around a brilliant plot twist which I shall not reveal. No plot spoilers, but neither of us saw it coming. The twist is worth an extra reviewer’s star.
The play moves rapidly through short scenes, a given with historic retelling, but always meaning fast-forwarding the story at the expense of depth. Many short scenes sacrifice deeper involvement. Spencer in The Daily Telegraph suggests it would benefit from a couple of further drafts. We agreed. Probably 10-15 minutes too long, and too much of the dialogue comes across as stilted. Some is actually hard to deliver. You can’t judge the staid matinees, but we counted near us, and they lost several of the audience at the interval.
There is always the issue of which language characters are speaking. For the women, normal English is supposed to be Tahitian, and faintly ludicrous pidgin English is the women speaking to the mutineers in English. That’s a hard line to maintain credibly. The young cast manage as well as could ever be expected, but I suspect the languages issue is the rusty hinge on which the mainly three-star reviews base their negative assessments. Showing language switch between “own language” and “foreigner speaking English” only works if we have a strong accent known to the audience. I’d cite the games played with accent in the TV series ‘All ‘Allo. It works with French, German, Italian, Spanish, Japanese. After that the number in the audience who interpret which language is being used by the switching declines. Having taught more than one hundred nationalities, I’d put myself on the wide end and could add Russian, Portuguese, Arabic, Greek, Chinese, Polish, Turkish at least. But here the women’s pidgin is “Generic noble savage” and if you told me it was Native-American or African, I’d have to believe you. The audience does not know what Polynesians speaking English sound like. I suspect the writer doesn’t either, and though some of the women look as if they are of Polynesian or Maori ethnicity, they might not either, and in any case have a script with pidgin “Him like …” dialogue. I’ve met native Hawaiian teachers and their accent was distinctive, but I can’t remember it enough to imitate it. Hawaii is 2,600 miles from Tahiti, but I’d assume a Polynesian connection. Anyway, here the differentiation between Tahitian and English is not clear, in spite of lines like “Speak English now!” It’s done with words, pidgin-ish, rather than with both words and accent.
The two narrators who continually break the Fourth Wall, ask audience members questions in relaxed standard English (but that is supposed to be the “Tahitian” marker otherwise). They do it brilliantly.
Charles Spencer in The Daily Telegraph said:
There is something faintly embarrassing about the Polynesian women’s rhapsodies about just how much they love sex, which come across like a dirty old playwright’s wet dream come true.
I’m going to disagree strongly there, our young female narrator (sorry, the unfamiliar Polynesian names remained confusing) came across as innocent and engaging, and not in the slightest “Fifty Shades of Polynesia” on describing Tahitian pre-European contact sexual mores. The women are explicit elsewhere on penises and cleanliness, but it’s not prurient, just direct, open and innocent. This is the writer’s intention, and he succeeds.
In the story, or his story, the women take power and that is central. There’s not space for enough character development, though we pick up “Queen”, “Soothsayer”, “Young One” well enough. The same can be said of the sailors. They have definitely different characters, but there’s not enough space to develop character delineation. It’s paradoxical as I thought the play slightly too long (see above) but it needed more space for character development.
The strengths were set, staging and action. The set is fluid and impressive, aided by a first-rate lighting plot (what will happen to that at The Globe?). In each half there was a long Polynesian dance sequence which was excellent and to most of us, novel, and the Maori / Polynesian pre-rugby match encore dance was truly fantastic. We would have liked more singing throughout … just the one early sea shanty was not enough. All the acting and staging were impeccable. I think the play itself does need more revision and editing.
One of the funniest scenes was the Bible class at the start of Act Two. I was about to say it was “highly derivative” of The Book of Mormon as the characters embroider bible stories to entrance the native women. I think “highly derivative” really has to give way to “blatant rip-off.” Yes, and it works well. It reminded us of other Book of Mormon aspects of the interaction and language shifts though.
Fletcher Christian (Tom Morley) and Hiti (Eben Figueiredo). Hiti also narrates.
The cast deserve accolades all round. Tom Morley plays the politically advanced, but duplicitous Fletcher Christian, setting up this Rousseau Utopia with a (reasonably) willing set of Noble Savages. Ash Hunter is Ned Young, the seemingly religious other officer, and one of the villains of the piece. Samuel Edward-Cooke plays the shaven-headed violent Scot, Quintal. He’s fresh from Titus Adronicus at the Globe, and full marks to this director for being restrained with the stage blood for a change. The women succeed in looking Polynesian and work together so well as an ensemble.
All in all though, the play is one step away from excellence. It stutters a bit, and dialogue throughout is below Richard Bean’s normal fluidity.
Three stars ***