Pitcairn by Richard Bean
Reviewed by Lee Farley at Malvern Theatres
Richard Bean’s latest play continues his complex investigation into Englishness, seen in earlier work such as ‘England People Very Nice’ and ‘The English Game’. This energetic and colourful production provides an intriguing and entertaining evening and a platform for more discussion and analysis of the playwright’s favourite topics.
It’s 1789 and Fletcher Christian has just overthrown Captain Bligh on the Bounty and sailed to Tahiti, land of temptation. A famous story, told many times elsewhere, but this play is interested in what happens next – Christian and a small group of men and women leave Tahiti and stumble across the remote island of Pitcairn. Richard Bean uses this setup to imagine what happens when cultures clash and morality is challenged. Fletcher Christian envisages the island as a fresh start, a miraculous utopia, but island politics, jealousy, rivalry, prejudice and human savagery swiftly bring his ideology into question. It seems the men cannot easily leave England and Christianity behind.
There are clear contemporary parallels, including immigration and gender politics. What happens when an ingrained way of life is imported into a different culture? Who exactly holds the balance of power in a post-patriarchy? Can true equality be achieved and what happens when that equality is challenged to breaking point?
Max Stafford-Clark’s direction is vibrant and gripping. The terrific acting company bring intelligence and dynamism to the roles. Early scenes in which the men discuss how they will divide up the island and argue over the details are packed with ideas and played with rigorous commitment. These scenes are reflected later by the women who discuss betrayal and mutiny with equal tenacity. There are compelling arguments made and these scenes are riveting, like ideological battlegrounds. I was reminded of an earlier Max Stafford-Clark production, Timberlake Wertenbaker’s classic Our Country’s Good, another examination of culture clash, colonialism and the impossibility of a fresh start in an island utopia.
Simple set design and costume helps to establish the exotic, remote island and the use of tribal rhythms and haka-like ritual dance transport us effectively into the South Pacific. We are far from the territory of hula dances and Rodgers and Hammerstein, though, this island is brutal, sexual and rough.
A committed and talented cast bring to life a powerful examination of morality, faith, identity and relationships. Richard Bean continues to provide an absorbing and excitingly theatrical insight into modern life.