Review: Pitcairn

A familiarity with playwright Richard Bean’s transatlantic hit One Man, Two Guvnors will do more than you might expect to prepare you for his new play Pitcairn (now at Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre via Chichester, and soon to be off to various other locations) a violent historical drama about the famous mutineers of the Bounty and the utopia they attempted to form on Pitcairn Island once the mutiny was done. At first it seemed like a fairly huge leap from a cheeky Goldoni rewrite to a slice of obscure colonial history (with some biting social satire in the middle with Great Britain, which transferred from the National Theatre to the West End and which I haven’t yet seen). But what these plays share is a sense of the chaos that lies just beneath the surface in any society, no matter how idealistic or how polished. In One Man, Two Guvnors, this took the form of the barely controlled chaos of Francis’s attempted deception and the fantastically melodramatic efforts of the various lovers to find each other. Pitcairn, on the other hand, turns on more troubling questions of what, exactly, apparently unjust laws and social hierarchies are designed to hold in check. 

This is a pretty pessimistic view of human nature. But no one comes out terribly well in 18th century history, do they. As if mutiny and murder weren’t enough to contend with, there’s the entrenched classism, racism, sexism, and slavery, too. And on Pitcairn, all of these are forced into the crucible of a one-mile by two-mile island populated by just a handful of British sailors and Tahitian men and women. As Richard Bean noted repeatedly in the pre-show talk that I attended, beyond that, no one really knows what happened on Pitcairn. Only one participant in the mutiny was alive by the time the inhabitants of Pitcairn were discovered, and his accounts of what took place were inconsistent. And as the conclusion of Bean’s play emphasizes, it’s more than likely that he would have had good reason to be dishonest about what he saw and did. 

Bean’s Fletcher Christian (only in his mid-twenties at the time of the mutiny, played by a splendid Tom Morely) is an idealist, equally convinced of the doctrines of social equality gaining currency at the time, and that their former captain, Bligh, did not die when they left him out at sea, and will be returning to see him hanged. The parallel currents of passion and paranoia undermine Christian’s visions of utopia from the start. 

In the pre-show talk, Bean said that once he learned that the play would be performed at the Globe, he made some rewrites, including the addition of two characters who function as narrators and interact directly with the audience. Director Max Stafford-Clark sends them out into the audience to speak to the groundlings, asking questions and demanding actual answers. Hiti (Eben Figuelredo) is a Tubayan teenager who longs to join the sexual utopia the British have promised. Mata (Cassie Layton) is the Tahitian wife of Christian’s fellow officer Ned Young (Ash Hunter), stolen from Tahiti in the dead of night. Her early delight with what the English soldiers have to offer quickly fades as she and Hiti bring us through a series of episodic incidents that illustrate the downfall of society on Pitcairn. 

Hiti and Mata are never quite able to use their nuanced narrative voices in the actual scenes, which are unquestionably dominated by the Englishmen. The group of wives, led by the two women who had been upper-caste back on Tahiti, stage interesting debates about who they are and where they belong, but they become a chorus of dissenting and agreeing voices, and few distinct pictures of actual characters emerge from among them. The same is largely true of the English, however, with Fletcher Christian the most obvious exception, at least until his eleventh hour scheme forces us to wonder how well we have really known him at all. This is all perhaps a necessary sacrifice when working with such a large cast, and it does not make the unfolding of events any less compelling. 

There are many tonal similarities between this and the Globe’s other current contemporary play, Doctor Scroggy’s War. Pitcairn is also frequently very funny, though the cards are laid out on the table very early: Hiti explains in one of his early monologues that “good days are life, and bad days are history,” and he is here to tell us history. 

But what is history, anyway? Pitcairn is framed by the discovery of the island and its inhabitants by some Royal Navy officers many years after the mutineers land, when only one man is left alive in the aftermath of the carnage we subsequently witness, and he immediately starts telling stories about what has happened. Hiti and Mata tell different stories, and Fletcher Christian more, including railing against the power of the Bible to force men into submission to unjust authority. The stories they tell– and the languages they tell them in, as highlighted by the warring use of English, Tahitian (though spoken onstage in English, but identified as Tahitian by changed accents and the men’s responses to hearing it) and even the medium of the women’s ritualized dances– carry the power to create and destroy marriages, shape the future of their community, and sanction murder. 

Watching what he believed to be objective truths about human nature and society’s potential dissolve before him, Christian seems to go slowly mad. But is it really because of wrecked idealism, or is it due to love? Are betrayals between the men rooted in classism and racism, or as revenge for long-ago slights on the Bounty? The what and the why prove equally fluid, and the constant and never-resolved urge to seek answers to those questions is a large part of what makes the play so engaging. As one of the women asks early on, “Are we in England or Tahiti?” Or Eden? Or Hell? Whose narrative will dominate? 

Bean’s narrative comes out in the end with a strange kind of hope, not necessarily for human goodness, but at least for human resilience. If nothing else, people do seem to survive. 

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