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Review: Pitcairn @ The Oxford Playhouse

This review was originally written for The Public Reviews

There is an eternal human fascination with Utopia. As Oscar Wilde wrote, ‘a map of the world that does not include Utopia is not worth even glancing at, for it leaves out the one country at which Humanity is always landing’. Culturally, a parallel interest exists, yet there is also recognisable tradition of presenting some Utopia, only for it to be subsequently and irreversibly tarnished, for the green leaves of Eden to wither and the blue skies of paradise to darken. One immediately thinks of Milton’s Paradise Lost or perhaps Danny Boyle’s 2000 film The Beach.

It is this process, this dousing of hope’s eternal spring, that forms the central narrative of Richard Bean’s new play, Pitcairn. The piece imagines the events between 1790, when the eponymous island was settled by 9 mutineers from HMS Bounty, and 1814, when the British Navy arrived to find only one of these mutineers left alive. Led by the infamous Fletcher Christian (Tom Morley) and dragging their Tahitian brides in tow, the motley crew form a new society based on equality, industriousness, and ‘natural law’. Pitcairn charts the descent of this new Eden into deceit, adultery and murder; think Lord Of The Flies but with sex-crazed sailors and grass-skirted Polynesians.

Aesthetically, Pitcairn is particularly striking. The action takes place on a large, rocky outcrop sprouting from the floor of the stage. This leads up, snake-like, to a fissure in the grey cliff that forms the set’s backdrop. The cast, wearing an eclectic mix of eighteenth-century navy officer uniforms and traditional Polynesian dress, use the space imaginatively, slouching against the rock or looking out to sea from on high.

Morley has a voice ideally suited to exasperation. One imagines that this is not always a boon, but it is undeniably apposite here. For all his idealistic philosophy, Christian remains the quintessential eighteenth-century English gent: articulate, compassionate and, on the whole, earnest. He is the play’s most relatable character. His hope is infectious, his enthusiasm invigorating, his frustration aggravating, and his ultimate failure deeply arresting. But perhaps that’s just because I am, to some extent, his twenty-first-century equivalent and can easily empathise with him. Herein lies the play’s fundamental problem: an inconsistency between the relatable and the unrelatable, the tangible and the intangible.

The portrayals of the Tahitians, and to a lesser extent the other Englishmen, less familiar as their lifestyles are, seem far less nuanced. There is Hiti (Eben Figueiredo), the love-struck teenage Tahitian; Quintal (Samuel Edward-Cook), the pig-headed English mariner; Ned Young (Ash Hunter), the God-fearing hypocrite. There is anger, there is joy, there is sadness, and, above all, there is promiscuity, but these emotions do little to engage the audience member. Their characters are little more than sketched outlines, never coloured in and thus never truly convincing. One can watch, with admitted interest, but despite frequent breaks of the fourth wall, one can never feel truly immersed. It’s as if there is an invisible glass screen between stage and audience.

Too often, discourse tends towards stagnant political discussion. The material, the islanders’ helpless isolation and their tentative new society, is microcosmic enough as it is. Yet the play’s political subtext is nevertheless rammed home throughout, a problem exacerbated by the characters’ aforementioned shallowness. The inevitable result is a lack of tension as the play reaches its violent denouement. The play is theatrically polished and imaginatively staged, but Pitcairn is some way from fulfilling its storyline’s dramatic potential.

3/5

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