Simon Bent’s new play Under the Black Flag received its world premiere at Shakespeare’s Globe on Tuesday (18 July 2006), with a press night rescheduled from 14 July, following previews from 9 July (See News, 11 Jan 2006).
Part of new artistic director Dominic Dromgoole’s emphasis on new work at the South Bank landmark, Bent’s play, which has the unwieldy subtitle “The Early Life, Adventures and Pyracies (sic) of the Famous Long John Silver before he lost his leg”, is set around the 17th-century pirate republic of Rabat, where John Silver and his crew of political radicals are feeling disaffected. Ye be warned, the play, directed by Paines Plough artistic director Roxana Silbert, “features bare flesh and filthy language”.
First night critics were divided by Under the Black Flag, with opinions ranging from “enthralling” to “uneven” and “ramshackle”. While Whatsonstage.com’s Michael Coveney enjoyed the adventure on the high seas, many of his peers found it lacking and, by the end of the play, which some deemed over-long and confused, they were flagging.
Michael Coveney on Whatsonstage.com – “For his enthralling new play, the first presented in Dominic Dromgoole’s regime at the Globe, Simon Bent has imagined an early life for Silver, long before he led his motley crew of buccaneers on the Hispaniola in search of Captain Flint’s booty…. Bent’s play, which stretches over five boisterous acts… is directed with considerable brio and panache by Roxana Silbert…. In truth, it's actually quite hard to follow exactly what's going on…. The fine Scottish actor Cal MacAninch as Silver is projected through the middle of these escapades en route to emerging, more or less, as a fully paid-up terrorist…. MacAninch, lean, mean and hollow-eyed, cuts a charismatic figure in a company that seems to have come alive in the demands of the play. For, although Bent conceived of his story as a film script, there's no doubt that the writing rises to the challenge of the theatre.”
Fiona Mountford in the Evening Standard - “For the second time recently, pirates buckle and swash across our cultural radar. Sadly, this drama manages to outlast the already lengthy Pirates of the Caribbean film, without offering the considerable compensating charms of Johnny Depp.... Indeed, when Silver's limb is still resolutely intact at 10.20pm, this audience member felt like flying the white flag…. Bent has obviously done his background research with, for example, mention of the historically accurate pirates' parliament. Yet veracity keeps rubbing up against the awkward fact that men with velvet pantaloons and gold hoops in their ears provoke giggles…. Large swathes of this script could be made to walk the plank and we wouldn't notice any difference. Cal MacAninch's Silver is an alarming charisma-vacuum, but Nicolas Tennant has the right idea as arch rival Kees de Keyser, camping it up slightly in Roxana Silbert's uneven production.”
Michael Billington in Guardian - “Simon Bent's piratical drama turns out to be a ramshackle pantomime in which potentially serious ideas are overlaid by an air of Carry On Buccaneering…. Behind the play lies an interesting Brechtian idea: that piracy is a reflection of the law-abiding world. While Cromwell's new model army formally processes, the pirates sing their own choral anthems and, even as Cromwell dissolves parliament, the pirates form their own anarchic assembly. But instead of pursuing this notion of the links between order and disorder, Bent chases down any number of blind alleys…. the whole thing strikes me as a misfire in which Bent's good intentions are subverted by his own discursiveness and the camp heartiness of the Globe audience.”
Benedict Nightingale in The Times - “Audiences at the Globe are always quick to see the comedy in things, and Bent and his director Roxana Silbert encourage the gigglers even at torrid moments, giving us a black comedy or comic melodrama awkwardly marooned between Robert Louis Stevenson and Edward Bond’s political farce Early Morning…. Don’t ask me to explain why (Silver) performs a slice of Hamlet with his best friend, a black slave actually called Hamlet, or why Hamlet, tortured and murdered by the vindictive Keyser, ends up as a ghost enjoining revenge. But there is a lot of violence, some very nasty, as the scene switches from Barbary to an England where Silver’s wife is also tormented and killed…. Lines that seem oddly facetious intervene… undermining a play whose subject seems to be the moral erosion of a decent, generous man…. my timbers remained decidedly unshivered.”
Charles Spencer in the Daily Telegraph - “The writing often smells of research. Bent has learnt that pirate ships were far more democratic than those in the Navy and that the buccaneers had their own parliament on the Moroccan Atlantic coast. The dramatist also draws laborious contemporary parallels. Cromwell's war on pirates is equated with Bush's and Blair's war on terror, especially after Silver converts to Islam and marries the daughter of the Sultan of Morocco…. What's missing in the show is swashbuckling flair and narrative momentum…. At almost three hours, Roxana Silbert's production is far too long, and desperately lacking in the ‘wow’ factor. The battles are lame, the actors too often inaudible, and it is often hard to work out exactly what's going on.”
- by Caroline Ansdell