It might be assumed by those who didn’t pay attention in history class, that after the mutiny on HMS Bounty took place in 1789, once Fletcher Christian and crew had ejected the tyrannical Captain Bligh, they all lived happily ever after on a tropical island in the south seas. But the aftermath was much more complicated and strange, with paradise producing at least as many political problems as the men had faced on the ship.
It’s a rich and rewarding subject for playwright Richard Bean, who brings his version of events to Shakespeare’s Globe, following a run at the Chichester Festival. There’s a lot going on here as Christian tries repeatedly to establish a just and non-hierarchical society on Pitcairn Island (the last port of call for the mutineers after a few pit-stops in Polynesia). Played here by Tom Morley, Christian is a fascinating, deeply-flawed and often priggish idealist who espouses half-understood theories that he can never quite implement among the ragtag community of bull-headed seamen, Tahitian women and colonial subjects who have come along for the ride.
The story is told from the point of view of Hiti, played with impish charm by Eben Figueiredo. There is a welcome touch of Bean’s great comic creation Francis Henshall (from One Man Two Guvnors) in both Hiti and his co-narrator Mata (a charismatic Cassie Layton). Both enjoy poking holes in the fourth wall to wink at the audience and subvert traditional narrative conventions. It can be a bit panto, but then that suits the interactive nature of the Globe and the groundlings (who have to stand for two and a half hours) were grateful for the attention.
The play itself mirrors the story of Fletcher Christian, in that it tries to impose a loose, liberal order over a whirling set of disparate elements. Sometimes, it all works brilliantly with the bawdy jokes balancing the dialectic, the action setting off the exposition. Sometimes, it feels a bit sluggish, and there are several extreme lurches in tone (a rape scene for example, seems especially gratuitous, horribly believable though it may be).
The chilly English autumn makes performing a story set on a tropical island tricky in an open air theatre. With half the poor actors on stage wearing only loin cloths and fake tan, it’s good of director Max Stafford-Clark to keep them all moving with an energetic staging that includes some especially vigorous song and dance. But it feels story needs the real location — buzzing forest and a swashing foreshore — to really set it off. Perhaps with some of the broader strokes toned down, Pitcairn would make for an exotic, compelling and complex movie.
Pitcairn is on at Shakespeare’s Globe until 11 October. Tickets £5-£42. Londonist saw this play on a complimentary ticket.