COLUMBUS AND THE DISCOVERY OF JAPAN
Barbican Theatre, London EC2
Opened 22 July, 1992

So this is what a "Chekhovian epic" looks like. Without the helpful programme notes, I would have mistaken it for a play that's simply failed to find its register.

Nelson sets the grand narrative of Columbus's obsessive quest against dual counterweights: the historical one, of wealthy Jews using the project as an excuse to liquidate their assets and flee the country before their expulsion from Spain, and the personal one whereby he portrays C.C. as arrogant, mendacious, solipsistic and in general unpleasantly callow. Too much so, in fact, to sustain an evening over three and a half hours and two intervals; assiduously and skilfully as Jonathan Hyde labours to maintain the focus, his is a performance built on textual sand.

Attention slips to the tribulations of Jewish merchant Pulgar: a sponsor of the voyage, dispossessed by the edict and eventually engaged as Columbus's secretary, he both comes to represent the moral norm and in Philip Voss's succession of small, precise articulations makes a more engaging figure onstage.

The journey itself occupies the third act only, and the play ends the moment the Admiral steps ashore, so we avoid the ritual PC re-evaluation of imperialist ravagery; but in trying too hard not to toe any orthodox line on Columbus, Nelson has ended up not toeing much of one at all.

Written for City Limits magazine.

Copyright Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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