We’re an excuse. We used to be something, make things, do things. And now? We sell commemorative tea-towels, debt and half-threats over some rocks we’d be hard-pressed to defend against penguins. If you can bear to watch our prime minister – a petulant three year old trying to fight his way out of an eel – all of his speeches articulate these islands’ legacy, but a vague future (oh it’ll be bright though, so bright and good and warm and bright).
Yet there are too many African slaves at the bottom of the Atlantic for me to make any apologies for Empire. Too many waifs, strays and orphans bow-legged with rickets for me to want a return to the “honest” hand-wrought trades of the Victorians. And I think it might be a good thing that there aren’t miners trapped by gas explosions in Grimethorpe, Saddleworth mill-workers deafened by the clatter of the spinning mule and Powys shepherds rotting alone in the gorse. There are few jobs now where you put your life on your line every day. Perhaps that is why – writer and director – Jesse Briton’s Bound resonates right from the off, shivers puncturing the skin as the cast of six start their first shanty in the half-light. The play tells the story of the crew of The Violet, a Devon fishing boat, financial pressures forcing them to plough on into a force 11 storm, just for the chance, just the chance of maybe being paid.
Written into the context Briton provides in the start of his playtext and woven throughout this superb production is an understanding that while there is regular tragedy in fishing off our shores, there are great rewards and great pride in these communities over a hard job well done. Contemporary drama it may be, but bookending each scene Briton reaches back to generations of fishermen through the songs in the darkness, sung a capella save for the stamp of a rhythm. The Violet’s crew of six are the one of the last, frayed threads in this long line. While our protagonists’ foray into the play’s tempest may be encouraged by the current global financial storm, while the characters and action both feel very real, by having the cast members watch the onstage action from the sidelines when no involve, Briton creates an expert synecdoche. The human final moments of the play and its conclusion speak not just about these men, nor just of our fishing industry, nor just of every fisherman who has fished off Britain. Like with Jez Butterworth’s Jerusalem, we aren’t battered round the head with it, but this is a state-of-the-nation play. Subtly, the loss and longing the audience feels at the end is not only for the richly drawn characters.
There is little set, just a table, chairs, maps, a light that swings from the ceiling as the boat rocks and the bright yellow overalls. In the darkness between scenes, the shanty-singing performers construct or take away what is needed. A sense of ship is created by performance and the simple pool of light. The acting, like the thought behind the production, is faultless. Everything fizzes, not least the goading, riotous double act of Ryhs (John Mckeever) and Graham (Jonathan Busby). Both actors give performances that cut through the play, allowing their energy to be either taken up or fought against by the others. John (Edward Grace) has a nice grounding presence as the reticent first mate and James Ashton’s Alan provides the right intensity for an aging fisherman living in the shadow of a father infamous for leading eight men to their death. Alex Clarke (playing Kirk) plays a Polish man without stereotype or affectation and the captain Woods is played with desperation and discipline by Thomas Christian.
I wouldn’t want this production to be other than it is. It’s perfect. There’s no slack. Briton’s production is aware of what has bound communities together in the past and what is cleaving them now, of tragedies past and tragedies present. In the next week, Bear Trap Theatre’s Winter/Spring tour takes them into the village halls of sea-bleached Cornwall, where this tale will be especially resonant.
If it wasn’t resonant enough, it’s funny. It’s beautiful and very human. That lost feeling Britain has? It’s here in Bound, adrift and capsized. What went before may not have been perfect and it may sometimes have been deadly, but what we have coming in the future will be very different. And feel far less vital than this.
Bear Trap Theatre is currently on tour with Bound until 1st March. You can see tour dates here.
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