Writer: Richard Bean
Director: Max Stafford-Clark
Reviewer: Joan Phillips
The story of the mutiny on the Bounty is well known to many of us. Less familiar is the story of what happened to the mutineers after they cast Captain Bligh adrift. This is the subject of Richard Bean’s new play, Pitcairn.
After the infamous mutiny in 1789, Fletcher Christian, accompanied by a group of mutineers and Polynesians, continued on the Bounty in search of a place to evade capture and to start a new way of life. After nine months they found what seemed like the perfect place. Pitcairn was a tiny, mountainous uninhabited, fertile island. Seemingly impossible to find and difficult to land on, it looked like the mutineers had discovered a hidden paradise to start anew. It would be almost 20 years before Pitcairn was rediscovered. By then only one mutineer, ten women and twenty three children were on the island. It is these years that the play investigates, using testimony from survivors, and Richard Bean’s imagination for the rest.
Bean uses this story to explore many themes that cause tensions at the heart of every society. At first, the group, attempt to install an egalitarian, secular system of governance. Old hierarchies are abandoned in favour of equality for all. Christian, straight out of 17th century enlightenment thinking, promotes a democratic and open society. Bean very quickly points out that reality needs pragmatism and compromise, leaving no room for political or cultural dogma. Add into this man’s natural insecurities when resources run short and feelings run high, no amount of enlightenment rationalism is going to bring resolution.
Fletcher’s paradise quickly crumbles into dystopia as competition for which values reign on the island spills into man’s natural tendency for violence. Christian, and others have failed to fill the vacuum of leadership created by their egalitarian system and civil war comes to their ‘Garden of Eden’. For all his attempts to run the island on openly and democratically, Christian himself resorts to lies, exploiting superstitions, and ultimately killing, in his attempts to maintain order. In the end the settlers’ society seems little better than the one they left behind.
The play delivered by a large cast of 15, are outstanding and much credit is due to all, but in particular, the five of the cast for whom it is their first professional rôle. Tim Shortall’s design sets the action around a precipitous rock centre stage representing the volcanic island. Johanna Town’s lighting marvellously transforms the set by alternatively projecting onto the backdrop a bright Polynesian paradise; foreboding clouds; a portentous eclipse; and even a magnificently burning Bounty collapsing into the sea. All is ably directed by Max Stafford-Clark whose Out of Joint Theatre Company, alongside Chichester Festival Theatre and Shakespeare’s Globe co-produced the play. The audience are treated to some Polynesian dancing and a fantastic ensemble hakka (choreography by Orlan Michaeli).
Bean blows a hole in the dream of Utopia and makes many powerful points along the way. Bean gives us some serious thinking to do about politics, society and human nature but he does scatter his frustrations in a lot of places. In addition, the portrayals of race, sexual attitudes, accents and gender felt the wrong side of condescension at times and the attempts at audience participation by the cast could be uncomfortable. Bean doesn’t quite focus his frustrations and somehow along the way the final production doesn’t seem to add up to the sum of its parts.
Runs until Sat 18th October 2014