Early in the second half, I identified the bells of familiarity ringing in my brain. It was not a matter of the obvious prequel resonances: Simon Bent's play is subtitled The Early Life, Adventures And Pyracies Of The Famous Long John Silver Before He Lost His Leg, and comes equipped with characters such as One-Eyed Pew, who later has to be renamed. Nor did it concern the more palpable Shakespearean echoes, of which there are many: a character named Hamlet, some Lear-like madness, a Periclean relationship between Silver and his daughter, and one scene which manages to blend the murderers from Macbeth with the eavesdropping routine in Twelfth Night. On this score, the work integrates well into a season at Shakespeare's Globe. But I finally realised that what the evening most called to mind was the play we never see in the film Shakespeare In Love: yes, this is as near as dammit Romeo And Ethel, The Pirate's Daughter.
Roxana Silbert's direction inserts the required vein of knowingness as fruity piratical rhetoric and the Book of Common prayer-style phrasing of Oliver Cromwell and his underlings as they hunt Silver (Cal MacAninch) rub up against modern demotic. There is even a nod to the urban legend about children's TV series Captain Pugwash: when Silver's daughter disguises herself, she becomes Roger the cabin boy (to which another pirate leers, "I'll take you up aft"). Robin Soans as Cromwell's man Captain Mission does well not to go all Colin Powell when he argues that all the pirates have shown him is where their weapons are not hidden. And, with much of the action set in Morocco, the play is admirably respectful of the values of Islam compared to Mission's wild Puritan fundamentalism (although a cod-muezzin routine is badly misjudged). But the play never settles comfortably in any one register. The musings on real and surrogate family relationships are not profound enough, the romantic entanglements not heart-rending enough (despite a number of deaths), the piratical element not rollicking enough (Alison de Burgh's fight direction scarcely swashes a single buckler), the Bardisms etc not quite postmodern enough. At three hours give or take, it's not pacy or punchy enough either.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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