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A CurtainUp London Review
Under the Black Flag
Of course what happens at the Globe is different from other theatres because of the reaction of the audience. I suspect that the Globe audience might laugh at the putting out of Gloucester's eyes in King Lear such is their determination to have a good time. It must be quite frustrating for directors trying to shock the audience to be met with guffaws and giggles. Under the Black Flag is hugely ambitious and at three hours, rather overlong for the audience to stand in the Pit or to sit on those hard wooden benches.
The play opens with the execution in 1649 of the rightful king, Charles I. What follows is the rule of Cromwell's Parliamentarians, those non-compromising, fundamentalist Christian Protestants here represented by Robin Soans' avenging character, given the descriptive name of Captain Mission. Our hero, John Silver (Cal MacAninch) is press ganged into the navy after a night out in his cups, abandoning his wife Mary (Jacqueline Defferary) and daughter Ann (Jane Murphy). Mission shoots Silver's father (Howard Ward). On the high seas, Pirates capture the navy vessel and Silver elects to join them. Mission swears to seek out and kill Silver's wife and child, and Silver shoots Mission's son Harold (Matthew Dunphy).
I found the plot rather confusing but we meet all the pirate characters and sail off to Morocco to the twin cities of Rabat Salé which are ruled by a Sultan (Joseph Marcel) and a parliament of pirates (I think). The romantic interest for our dashing hero comes from a Frenchwoman Isabelle (Jacqueline Defferary), the mistress of pirate swashbuckler chief Kees de Keyser (Nicolas Tennant) and the Sultan's daughter Sula (Akiya Henry). Mission returns to England to avenge his son's death and tortures Mary Silver to death but not before she has helped her daughter escape to find Silver disguised as a cabin boy. The final scene explains how Silver lost his leg sees the reunion between father and daughter and Mission's revenge.
On the page, Simon Bent's play is very well written. His descriptive passages are wonderful. I especially liked the parallel speeches of Mrs Silver and her husband each listing a catalogue of misfortune, hers about to happen, his having happened. She incites Mission and the Roundhead soldiers to mistreat her but swears she will never let go of that which she loves.
"Bind me chattel me strip me naked, withold water withold food, deprive me of light deprive me of sleep, cut me until I run a river of blood, break my body as you would a tree. Deprive me of all . . . . . I will say nothing."
Hundreds of miles away her husband Silver's speech tells what has happened to him,
"I am plagued, I am rotted, I am perished - the house I dwelt in was locked to me, my wife forsook me, I lost my child, I was taken prisoner, I was betrayed, I was made a slave, lost my country, I was nearly hung, I killed my friend, I am an exile and a cut-throat."
Stirring stuff, eh? But it is a wordy piece and maybe some of the beauty of the words is sucked into the outdoor void at the Globe where it is difficult to hear every word.
Roxanna Silbert's production has great fight scenes and rousing songs from lusty pirates and is rich in atmosphere but the price of audience confusion is puzzlement rather than commitment to our hero's cause. It is the first time I remember credit being given to a woman fight director. Simon Bent's Under the Black Flag is a capacious vessel with many themes, of fundamentalism, of a good man being swept along by the tide of events, of politics, power and servitude.
Retold by Tina Packer of Shakespeare & Co.
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