Richard Bean's retelling of the events that followed the infamous mutiny on the Bounty is an illuminating, angry piece of historical entertainment.
Cantankerous playwright Richard Bean has been known to cause offence with his, um, ‘unflinching’ portraits of ethnic minorities. So I rather braced myself for impact with ‘Pitcairn’, a speculative retelling of the events that followed the infamous mutiny on the Bounty, wherein nine British mutineers and 19 Tahitians started up a ‘utopian’ colony on the titular south Pacific island.
In fact, Max Stafford-Clark’s Out of Joint/Globe co-production makes a neater companion piece to Bean’s West End-bound ‘Great Britain’ than you might expect. Despite the radically different period settings (‘Pitcairn’ is substantially set in the 1790s) both are really about the undemocratic nature of the British establishment.
In ‘Pitcairn’ that takes the form of Fletcher Christian (Tom Morley) an impoverished nobleman and apparent utopian idealist who speaks forcefully to his fellow mutineers about setting up a ‘true’ democracy on the island (that is to say, all the men – including the Tahitians – have equal rights; the women do not). However, despite Morley never allowing the façade of idealism to slip, Fletcher’s actions betray his imperial cynicism – he’s happy to use violent coercion and outright lies to achieve his ends, particularly in his racist manipulation of hapless young Tahitian Hiti.
The biggest surprise, though, is that after a rather ponderous first half that often feels bogged in expeditionary detail, Bean the old school misanthrope adds a kick-ass feminist note to the second half. The weary Tahitian women – generally the funnier and more winning members of the cast, with Cassie Layton a particular delight as the irrepressible Mata – exasperatedly band together to drive out the men, who have long since descended into petty feuding over land and chattels. It doesn’t end well and it’s all pretty crude – I’m not sure Andrea Dworkin would go nuts for it – but it is pretty effective in its damnation of the imperialist British mindset, plus the step up in terms of swashbuckling action is much appreciated.
The start is slow and it’s not one of Bean’s more gag-heavy plays (a shame, as the avalanche of throwaway one-liners that sometimes grate at the NT would be lapped up at the Globe), but it finds its level in the end as an illuminating, angry piece of historical entertainment.