Under the Black Flag, Simon Bent’s new play at the Globe, bears the cumbersome subtitle The Early Life, Adventures and Piracies of the Famous Long John Silver Before He Lost His Leg.
Pirates have become rather popular of late what with Disney’s Johnny Depp-starring Pirates of the Caribbean in 2003 and the more recent installment this summer, so it’s easy to see what motivated the Globe’s new artistic director Dominic Dromgoole to make this the first new work to be staged during his tenure.
Bent relocates the title character to Cromwell’s Commonwealth, imagining the path young John Silver may have taken to become the pirate of legend. Ignominious beginnings indeed, Bent’s John Silver is the reluctant member of a family of conmen who shirks his duty to his wife and daughter. Arrested and press-ganged, he soon wins over his superstitious shipmates (including Ben Gunn and a not yet Blind Pew) who think him lucky but also makes some powerful enemies.
Under the Black Flag is a big production in more than one sense, with seventeen actors playing twenty-nine named characters. Plenty of songs pepper proceedings, which cleverly help set scenes and establish characters. The pirates sing “Liquor, Gold, Booty, Slaves, Women” as a kind of mantra – and really what else do you need to know about them? It is this sharp humor, and the strong cast, which makes this over-long muddle of a play worth the effort.
The performances were very energetic and everyone was obviously having fun. Cal MacAninch makes a charismatic John Silver (the Long he acquires on account of certain – unseen – anatomical gifts) and he manages to carry the audience’s sympathy to the end. Jane Murphy is also excellent as his sharp tongued daughter.
Roxana Silbert’s production was very inventive in its use of the space, with the Globe’s pillars doubling as ships masts. It’s also good (as in Lucy Bailey’s Titus Andronicus) to see the pit being used so creatively, though sometimes to the bewilderment of the ‘groundlings’.
While much of this play is typical high-seas fare, the darker themes of death, faith and revenge often clashed uneasily with its slightly pantomime feel. Bent’s plentiful Shakespearean references were however fitting for a Globe production.
For all it does well, at 3hours 5mins Under the Black Flag is simply too long. Furthermore, Bent packs so much in that the meaning of his words often gets lost. Still, I left the theatre with a smile on my face, as did many people. Certainly worth a look on a muggy summer night.