"Nearly 20 years in the EU," remarked an acquaintance recently, "and the south coast of England is more obsessed with smuggling than it was in the eighteenth century. And it's the same things being smuggled." In that respect, Nick Darke's The King Of Prussia – concerning itself with a family of "free traders" bypassing the Revenue to bring spirits into a Cornish cove some 200 years ago – is as topical as it is historical. Given that it was first staged (in 1995) in Cornwall by a local company, and clearly carried a subtextual commentary regarding EC fishing quotas, one might wonder how it plays in the more comfortable downs of West Sussex.
Not that badly, is the short answer: although it has lost its immediacy of community and subject, Darke's play remains a good yarn – several good yarns, really – with a keen and sympathetic enough insight into human character to see it through. We appreciate the truth in the boasts of self-styled "King" of Prussia Cove, John Carter (Dermot Kerrigan), to be "an honest man", marking up no more than a modest profit on his illicit cognac, and even flat-out determined to recruit hapless local customs collector John Knill (Michael Gould) rather than have to kill him. We note that the trade only becomes ugly and unethical when an outsider moves in with no knowledge of local conditions beyond a desire to maximise profits – in this case, bored botanist's wife Susanne Stackhouse (Lise Stevenson). We follow the three Carter brothers through local confrontation, high-seas stand-offs and even a French revolutionary tumbril: John determined to do right by his family and his local market (consumers and paid helpers alike), Harry resolved after his time in prison to become a preacher, Edward forsaking both smuggling and his fascination with "'pocalyptic" utterance to become a lobster fisherman. We cannot help but conclude that Mrs. Backhouse's network of contacts in high places is inimical to true "free trade".
It is a vast amount of ground (and sea) to cover in 90 minutes, and no small feat that Darke manages to keep all his narrative and thematic platers more or less spinning at once; niggling feelings of surfeit may persist, but are generally drowned out by the momentum of the play, in Sean Holmes's production on a high-raised, raked deck of a stage. The human perils of corporate capitalism are seldom so beguilingly condemned as here.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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