As director Max Stafford-Clark says, everybody knows about the mutiny on the Bounty: “But nobody really knows what happens next.”
It’s an omission he’s putting right with the world premiere of Richard Bean’s new play Pitcairn in Chichester’s Minerva Theatre (until September 20): “It’s the missing piece in the jigsaw that we are restoring,” Max says.
It’s 1789, the year of the French Revolution and the Bounty mutiny. After overthrowing Captain Bligh, Fletcher Christian drops anchor at the remote island of Pitcairn in the southern Pacific. He plans to establish a society of equals with his fellow sailors and their Tahitian followers. But it’s not long before hopes of a new Eden turn to brutal dystopia.
Max asked Richard to write the piece. As he says, it’s a long story. Max was on tour with his Out of Joint theatre company in Cambridge and found himself in the university bookshop looking through a number of doctoral theses on the events in the South Pacific.
“Fletcher Christian thought he could establish utopia. Tom Paine’s Rights Of Man had been published. Christian would have known about alternative systems of government. It was the same year as the French Revolution.
“But Fletcher’s attempt was flawed by the sexism and racism of the sailors themselves. They made the mistake of dividing the island without giving any to the native men. The native men revolted and borrowed the muskets and they shot six of the white men in one day, including Fletcher Christian.”
The optimistic view of Christian is that he dreamt of better things, but the truth was that his own sexism was part of his downfall: “He was radical for that time, but he would be seen now as very conservative. His weakness was that in order to create this democracy, he stepped away from being the leader, and other people stepped into the void.”
Despite the serious content, there is plenty of humour in the tale, though, Max stresses: “Richard Bean was a stand-up comedian. He couldn’t write anything without being funny. After reading those initial doctoral books about the subject, I read other books including some that were very Mills & Boon-ish, and I just gave Richard my library.
“He is such a wonderful storyteller. What I like is his ambition to take on epic subjects. There are echoes of Romeo and Juliet in it, of Othello and of Macbeth – quite deliberate on his part, I believe.”
Max has always been a great champion of new writing in the theatre.
“One of the things I love about the theatre is the way in which we can examine the present, but also examine the past. In Australia, it’s the novel that does that. They have great novelists, but in England it is the theatre that does it, people like Howard Brenton, David Hare, people like that, people that write great plays that give us back our history.
“And we are lucky in this country that we have always had an infrastructure that encourages new writing.”
Which, of course, means developing an instinct for it. Max confesses to sins of commission and omission, new plays he has directed which he really oughn’t to have touched and new plays he turned down which he really ought to have directed: “I can claim a number in both categories!”