NOT SO PEACEFUL IN THE PACIFIC
It is not often that the Chichester front-row is questioned about its sexual practices by merry brown girls extolling carefree Tahitian sex. “Our favourite thing! Young people go into the hills in a big group for days and do nothing but have sex with each other. It is a good way to make friends. Do you do that?”. A balding man froze in horror at being targeted, but I am proud to say that his white-haired wife called the impertinent bluff and just nodded serenely. Go Chichester!
It was only one of many odd moments in Richard Bean’s latest play, produced by Out of Joint (Max Stafford-Clark directs) with Chichester and the Globe. It imagines the two years after Fletcher Christian’s Bounty mutineers of 1789 cast Captain Bligh adrift, returned to Tahiti to collect (or kidnap) twelve local women and a few men to help with the ship, and found sanctuary and fertile land on the tiny Pitcairn island, one mile by two. When they were found some twenty years later, only one mutineer remained, surrounded by the women and children. To this day on the island a few descendants with English names remain (several of the men lately mired in a notorious paedophile and incest scandal).
Bean, however, focuses on the first couple of years and the desire for what Fletcher Christian calls “a virgin leaf of vellum…”. A fresh start for the Enlightenment era, an equal society without clergy, aristocracy or injustice, everything discussed at the “Yarning Court”. Utopia. Of course it falls to pieces, as in most such fables from sci-fi post-apocalypse tales to Lord of the Flies. Christian concludes, as various ghastly or ludicrous events transpire, that “the natural condition of man is violence, lechery, drunkenness, greed, suspicion and hate”. The Englishmen resort to muskets and manacles, the Tahitians rebel.
There are some good sharp ironies: not least that the islanders are more class-conscious than the Englishmen, Mi Mitti the ‘wife‘ of Christian discarding him when informed that his family has lost its money. The performances are fine: Tom Morley as the angst-ridden Christian and Ash Hunter as the appalling Bible-bashing hypocrite Young in particular. But the women – Anna Leong Brophy, Saffron Hocking, Cassie Layton, Siubhan Harrison, Lois Chimimba and Vanesse Emme – are particularly fine, not least at handling the Pacific-pidgin speech into which they have to fall, and in Chimimba’s case performing two extreme sexy-haka dances without loss of dignity. Which is important, because the most uncomfortable aspect of Bean’s text is the amount of dirty-old-man lines in which lovely brown women with tumbling black hair extol the joys of constant and group sex. I am sure it is meticulously researched, down to the expressions, but…tricky. On the other hand he also imagines a final revolt where the women violently take charge. I admire Bean greatly, and wish this cudgel-feminist denouement didn’t feel quite so much like guilty compensation for the raunchy stuff.
Anyhow, the islanders’ fragile society crumbles into rivalry, rape, religious fanaticism, civil war, Naveed Khan as the low-caste Tahitian wandering around with an axe and assorted scalps, and the worst villain’s death scene so prolonged (women! Can’t even beat people to death properly!) that actual giggles arose as poor Samuel Edward-Cook kept rising with a groan.
It is an interesting, far from dull evening, though it comes nowhere near Timberlake Wertenbaker’s noble Our Country”s Good (the last 18c imagining done by Out of Joint). It is wonderfully well staged with Tim Shortall’s design of bare rocks and Andrzej Goulding’s projections.
box office cft.org.uk 01243 781312 to 20 Sept then touring till 22 Nov