It was time for our second trip to Chichester this year, and we started off with another delicious lunch in the Minerva Brasserie, although mackerel pate, shoulder of pork and enough cheese to sink a battleship was a bit on the heavy side. A few hours later we were feeling like our bellies were full of old boots. Next time I think we’ll go for a lighter option.
The phrase “a new play by Richard Bean” is beginning to get a bit old hat, but it’s still something that gets your juices flowing with the prospect of a great theatre experience. For Pitcairn, Mr Bean has joined forces with Max Stafford-Clark and Out of Joint, just like he did for The Big Fellah which won the Chrisparkle award for best new play in 2010. That was an incredibly impactful drama that combined terror and humour with massive dramatic irony. I’m always hoping from Mr Bean that his next play will have the same force and edginess. Is Pitcairn going to win the best play award for 2014? I can tell you now, no.
I liked the fact that it was performed in a nice big empty space. Plenty of room to move around and no cumbersome sightlines. Just some rocks at the edge of the stage, with a projection of waves crashing over them, suggested that Pitcairn is both a remote godforsaken place and an idyllic retreat, as also indicated by the light projection giving us some beautiful sunsets as well. It was a shame that at our performance, a fly had infiltrated the projection equipment so our beautiful sunsets were eradicated by its frantic crawling around in search of freedom. Made me go all itchy just to look at it.
I’m not overly familiar with the whole Fletcher Christian/Mutiny on the Bounty story but the exposition at the beginning of the play gives us a really helpful explanation of where we’re at. A military expedition has arrived on Pitcairn looking for Christian to arrest him and return him to England where doubtless he’ll be hanged. They meet the only surviving man from the Bounty on the island, John Adams, who explains that Fletcher Christian is dead. He orders his wives to provide some – shall we say – entertainment and sustenance to the expedition members, and then we’re overtaken by flashback to the time when we see Christian and his men arriving on the island and setting up a utopian society. Everyone is equal and there is no hierarchy. It doesn’t work. Instead of utopia they get anarchy. There are arguments about land ownership and the allocation of wives. There is guerrilla warfare between the incomers and the native leader of the island. Everyday existence descends into a mess of violence and rape and, eventually, the women rise up and take control. It’s a fascinating little window of history, and there ought to be a good play lurking here somewhere. But you don’t feel as though this is it.
There are a number of problems. Breaking the fourth wall, by having members of the cast come out and ask questions of the audience, just doesn’t work here. Whilst it was the source of brilliant comedy in One Man Two Guvnors, it just feels embarrassing in this play. It comes unexpectedly, and without any real reason or purpose, so the audience are stunned into silence and more than a bit reluctant to answer back. As a result, it feels like the cast are trying to encourage simple one word answers from a very thick school class. If they’d asked me anything, I would have been very tempted to just say “I dunno….” like when I was in 5th form. It’s just the wrong play for this device. Yes, Mr Bean has given us the overwhelming hilarity and comic construction of One Man Two Guvnors, and the very direct connection between fiction and reality in Great Britain. However, in Pitcairn, you sense he is trying for a comic slant with the badinage between the characters and the audience, but it’s dead in the water.
It works in “One Man” because its structure, opening with the skiffle band playing music directly to us the audience, and being an adaptation of a commedia dell’arte, tells us that it’s more a show than a play right from the start. It works in “Great Britain” because the character of Paige soliloquises with us from the beginning, commenting throughout on the other characters and events. But in Pitcairn, it’s half-hearted. We’re about a quarter of the way through the play, which has been otherwise been thoroughly standard and straightforward, when suddenly a character starts addressing us. Why? He’s not making great ironic comments like Paige Britain. He’s not involving us in one huge pantomime like Francis Hensall. It’s almost as though Mr Bean now simply can’t write a play without audience interaction, even when the play and the structure don’t call for it.
As a result the whole vision of the play feels muddled. You’re really not sure what Mr Bean is trying to achieve. There’s a nice twist in the story which is cleverly set up and effectively carried out, but in order to get there we have to endure some pretty odd scenes, including a brutal rape. Mrs Chrisparkle found the rape scene and the other scenes of violence quite upsetting. In fact, within its context, we both found it more disturbing than the seven Soviet soldiers cannibalising each other in The Curing Room; at least there it was the natural, overwhelming urge for survival that brought about the gore. In Pitcairn, it felt quite gratuitous. There’s also a dildo dance. Yes, that’s right; a scene which seems to have no other purpose other than to have one of the island women doing a rather suggestive dance with not one but two dildos. Who knew that 18th century Pitcairn had its own Ann Summers? Even the curtain call culminates with the cast doing a haka. I can only presume they did it simply to show us that they could. Pitcairn can’t decide whether it’s a historical drama or some kind of Tahitian Fantasia. I wouldn’t have put it past them to do the finale on ice.
The muddle continues with the characters. Whilst the men are well delineated – the violent one, the learned one, the mischievous one, and so on, the women are almost completely interchangeable. I found myself constantly checking back on my programme, working out which one was who. It doesn’t help that they all appear to sleep with everyone else anyway, whenever any of the men demanded a changeround of domestic arrangements. It also doesn’t help that the only thing the women talk about is getting lots of sex. They’re sex mad. That’s why the whole subplot of young Hiti, at 17 desperate to lose his virginity, didn’t ring true to me. With all that talk of sex, those women would each have had him deflowered by the time he was 14. The poor lad wouldn’t have stood a chance.
Notwithstanding all this, there are some very good performances. I liked Tom Morley’s portrayal of Fletcher Christian as a noble character gone wayward, trying in vain to hang on to his ebbing principles. There’s a very strong performance by Samuel Edward-Cook as the evil Quintal, his bulging eyes maniacally staring out at you as he brutalises his way round the island. Eben Figueiredo’s Hiti is convincingly keen to prove himself a man not a boy and you feel very sorry when he comes a-cropper; but because this play has one foot firmly in fantasy, he doesn’t stay dead for long. Amongst the female ensemble, Cassie Layton stands out as Hiti’s love interest Mata. Her having to ask the audience cringingly embarrassing questions about their own sexual attitudes and experience ought to merit a sympathy award at least.
To be honest, it’s not a terribly good play. The subject matter is fascinating, with interesting characters, and there is much scope for a dramatic examination of how a utopian ideal fades and dies. Sadly the writing is somewhat chewy and you come away feeling this is one serious play that has been negated by much gratuitous nonsense. It will be very interesting to see how it does on its tour to Shakespeare’s Globe, then Plymouth, Warwick, Guildford, Eastbourne, Oxford and finishing up in Malvern in mid-November.