Note: This review dates from November 2001 and this production's original run at the National Theatre.
No director in Britain is capable of creating a sense of community as fully realised as Bill Bryden. In this extraordinary production of The Good Hope - a Dutch play from the turn of the last century with the action stunningly and evocatively relocated to the Yorkshire fishing town of Whitby - you are totally drawn into its close-knit world whose industry is dependent on the sea.
Bryden's three-part production of The Mysteries is one of the landmarks of the National's time on the South Bank, and his Glasgow staging of The Big Picnic (set in the trenches of the First World War) is one of the landmarks of my theatregoing life. This time, he turns to a far more domestic, intimate canvas than either of those epic stories, but he brings the same sense of detail and beautifully captured ensemble performance to illuminate it.
Bryden is also, in all cases, a deeply political and contemporary director, acutely aware of how these stories from the past matter and communicate to us now. The resonance of this one - telling how a rotting boat that its owner has been warned is dangerous gets put out to sea regardless - is indeed chilling when you consider how profit is still being put before safety today in our railway industry. As Lee Hall, the screenwriter of Billy Elliot who has provided this brilliant adaptation comments, "Within days of first reading the play, a train was derailed at Hatfield and the emergent story of our railways seemed a sad, poetic repetition of the events of the play."
But Bryden is also at once resolutely untheatrical yet of the theatre. So utterly tangible is the world he creates for the play, and so truly does he see the actors inhabiting their roles, that it's like watching the dull, doom-laden ache of real life unfolding. It is totally involving and eventually, quietly overwhelming.
In the grim, remorseless way that Herman Jeijermans (who wrote the original play) and Hall have set out this story, the inevitability of the tragedy that awaits on a forbiddingly storm-tossed night is plain from the outset. But Bryden also brings to it unexpected qualities of comedy and delight, beautifully bonded by the music of John Tams (who also puts in a remarkable cameo as the prescient shipwright whose warnings are ignored).
In an altogether remarkable cast, Frances de la Tour is also stunning as a fisherman's widow whose two sons follow tragically in their father's footsteps, and Sheila Reid as another widow in a community that is full of them.
- Mark Shenton