Under the Black Flag

Tuesday, 18 July, 2006
Review by: 
Peter Brown

Shakespeare's Globe on the cooling banks of the Thames has been boarded! The venue is currently awash with pirates, and a black flag has been raised signifying a temporary change of direction in terms of subject matter as well as mood at the Bard's 'natural' home.

Fictional character Long John Silver is the central figure in this excellently crafted and hilarious work by Simon Bent. For those unfamiliar with Silver, he appears in the children's classic 'Treasure Island' by Robert Louis Stevenson (first published in book form in 1883). Silver was ship's cook in a venture which aimed to find pirate treasure on a remote island in the West Indies. Silver sported a parrot on his shoulder, and a crutch to counter his balance since he was a unidexter (ie, someone with only one leg) and eventually became leader of mutineers who aimed to purloin the treasure for themselves. Simon Bent has taken this infamous fictional character back to the time before he lost his leg, tracing his background and intermingling it with some historically accurate detail which makes for a believable as well as an exceptionally humorous story.

We first meet up with the deviant John Silver (leg in tact) as he's exuberantly enjoying his (permanent) leisure time with his drunken, raucous and ungodly mates. Silver is obviously a rogue, and has little time for his wife and daughter, and the responsibilities of fatherhood. But his carefree life is short-lived when he's caught by the press gang and forcibly enrolled into the British Navy and instantly subjected to flogging before the ship is taken over by pirates and he's saved from further punishment. Before long, the cut-throat but witty pirates see Silver as one who 'has the luck', and when their captain, Kees De Keyser, departs, Silver is duly elected to serve in his stead. Pursued by his former captain, Mission, and stalked by a revenge-seeking De Keyser, there's a considerable amount of blood spilt through ghoulish torture, and a high body count which rivals anything that Shakespeare dreamt up.

There's a wealth of talent on display here from a cast in exceptional, almost faultless form who are obviously relishing and enjoying every moment of this immensely diverting production. The role of Long John was immortalised by Robert Newton in the 1950 film version of Treasure Island. And it's still a tough act to follow, particularly when there are many people who vividly remember Newton's unique delivery and characterisation. Cal MacAninch rises admirably to the occasion, giving us a Silver not only with a soul, but considerable spirit as well. Nicolas Tennant provides a highly convincing and villainous pirate as Kees de Keyser, and Jacqueline Defferary is beautifully devious as De Keyer's niece and lover.

As with the other productions in this year's season at the Globe, there's fine musical accompaniment and excellent melodic and haunting singing from the cast. And musical director, Belinda Sykes, continues to astonish with her amazing talent for all manner of musical instruments, and here she also finds time to throw in some songs and an odd dance or two for good measure – exceptional stuff!

Certainly not serious drama, and definitely not a tragedy in the vein of 'Titus Andonicus' or 'Coriolanus, 'Under The Black Flag' is almost a blend of sophisticated adult pantomime with a tinge of farce. But that's not to say that this production is any way 'over the top'. Roxana Silbert's keen and vibrant direction gives the cast ample opportunity to milk the dialogue for every last laugh, but it's also direction which has strong reigns to it too, carefully controlling the timing, and not allowing the team to go completely 'overboard'.

Simon Bent's superb script, has lashings of comedy which brought huge waves of laughter from the enthusiastic first-night audience. There are some extremely funny lines, such as when pirate captain De Keyser tells the pirates to kill a captive because he hasn't agreed to his terms - the pirates reply: “He's gagged!” And when Captain Mission is describing the pirates, he says “Their word isn't worth a mouse's turd”. But Bent also manages to reference some sobering present day issues such as terrorism and the cycle of revenge, as well as the nature of Islam, all of which Brent handles sensitively and astutely. The result is therefore not completely comedic, but it's heavily weighted towards humour, and Brent invests his pirates with comedy that's modern and readily accessible, presenting a quirky view of the pirate world.

This season at the Glove is entitled 'The Edges of Rome'. And in this case we're right on the very edges of it - dubiously so some might say - because there's little to link it to Rome in the way that the plays we've seen already in the season have been. But since a brief sequence of Hamlet is part of this story, there's certainly a link with Shakespeare, and in any case, it doesn't really matter that much because 'Under The Black Flag' gives the team at the Globe a well-deserved break from the heavy Shakespearian tragedies they've tackled up to now, and provides a breath of fresh air, in more ways than one, in this steamy summer heat wave.

I am unashamedly an avid fan of the Globe, but I hope that doesn't mean I am any less objective. Thus far, 'The Edges of Rome' season has been enormously enjoyable, with just a slight blip in 'Anthony and Cleopatra' where, though Francis Barber's portrayal was superb, there was a lack of commensurate support. With 'Under The Back Flag', however, there's a return to the incredibly high standard which has been set this season at the Globe, and it provides a strikingly lively and highly amusing evening for both audience and cast alike. Full marks, captain!


What the popular press had to say.....
FIONA MOUNTFORD for THE EVENING STANDARD says, "Uneven production." MICHAELO BILLINGTON for THE GUARDIAN says, "The whole thing strikes me as a misfire in which Bent's good intentions are subverted by his own discursiveness and the camp heartiness of the Globe audience." CHARLES SPENCER for THE DAILY TELEGRAPH says, " Confused and far too long...What's missing in the show is swashbuckling flair and narrative momentum." BENEDICT NIGHTINGALE for THE TIMES says, "Confusing play."

External links to full reviews from popular press
Daily Telegraph
The Times

Production photo by Stephen Vaughan

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