I was privileged to be invited along to a dress rehearsal this week of one of this year’s British American Drama Academy productions, the rarely-staged The Sea Voyage. This is a brilliant scheme, in which troupes of young American actors work with professional directors and designers to create full productions, staged in the Oval House Theatre. This season The Sea Voyage was accompanied by Under Milk Wood and The Revenger’s Tragedy, and on the strength of this rehearsal I’m only disappointed I didn’t get to see the other productions.
Graham Watts’s production took Fletcher and Massinger’s piratical romp and made it speak to the company’s accents by Americanising the setting. The pirates were breeched and booted as if prospectors; Aminta (the sole woman on ship) was in long dress; the ‘Amazon’ women inhabiting the all-female island next to the one on which the shipwrecked sailors arrived were tattooed and marked across their faces and limbs. The production ended with an evocation of exotic headdresses in the gesture towards a sacrifice, before concluding with a celebratory hoedown to fiddle music. The evocation of the American West raised the thorny spectre of racial representations, but the point made clear in the final act is that the women have only ever been playing at being Amazons; arguably, the exoticism introduced in the make-up, headdresses and weapons associated with Native Americans was the imported fantasy of outsiders already.
The context of colonial arrivals, frontier politics and masculinity evoked by the costumes went a long way towards an intelligent, funny and provocative reading of The Sea Voyage. The play itself sets up wonderfully farcical situations (the moment where Charlie Strickland’s Sebastian and Bryn Graham’s Nicusa took advantage of a fight to sneak off and steal the ship that was ostensibly going to rescue them was brilliantly funny), but in context they spoke to particular narratives of grief and exploitation. For instance, Sebastian and Nicusa, shipwrecked for years, were old timers revealing their hoards of gold and jewels; the squabbling that the shipwrecked sailors immediately fell into, despite Sebastian’s warnings, were a potent reminder of the colonial selfishness that accompanies the struggle for resource.
The shipwrecked sailors were drawn finely as individuals, falling into two opposing factions straightaway (following the opening shipwreck with the inevitable, but well-played, collective swaying). Kees DeVos was the upright, softly spoken and good-hearted leader Albert, played for every ounce of strained heroism and honourable endeavour. He was established quickly as the narrative’s moral centre, which despite his abduction of Aminta seemed necessary to carry forward the early action. His hearty cry of ‘What cheer?’ was greeted with suitable exhausted contempt by the prostrate sailors who had recently escaped their ship. He contrasted with the wonderfully squabbly trio of Morillat (Anna Deery), Lamure (Amy Gonzales) and Franville (Sophia Itkin), who worked very effectively as a group to make sense of the constant negative energy of these three. Egging each other on through competitive bitterness and shared bravado, their constantly oppositional views were clearly myopic, yet as a trio they continually tipped the balance into chaos, spoiling Albert’s attempts to establish order.
On the side of honour, Albert was supported by the simmering (and later hilariously drunken) Master of Bennett Saltzman and a brutal Boatswain (Nahome Diribssa) whose eagerness with a cat-o’-nine tails lent an occasionally sinister edge to Albert’s governance. The scenes of the shipwrecked men were dominated for the most part by Evan James Chryiwski as Tibalt, the witty gentleman. Tibalt’s wit had an aggressive edge for much of the start of the play; he was a discontent in the line of Jacques from As You Like It, and his jokes came heavily barbed and attacking, particularly of the three foolish malcontents. His comradeship with both the Master (especially during the drinking scene) and with Albert (the two clapping each others’ backs and standing together when in conflict) gave his character the necessary integrity to hold the presiding party together, yet also allowed him sufficient independence to make sense of his later descent into drinking, feasting and pulling off his shirt as he ran off with Crocale for their liaison.
The tension between the two factions drove much of the first half, and an early standout scene came as the trio of malcontents joined forces with the Surgeon (Strickland again) to kill and eat Alexandra Ximena Milla’s Aminta. Milla played Aminta straight down the line as virtuous victim, but the slow circling of the hungry castaways, licking their lips and smiling as they anticipated their meal, carried a real edge. The effect was made both hilarious and even more sinister by Strickland’s extraordinary Surgeon, brandishing knives and smiling evilly as he prepared to carve the living woman; his gleeful admittance of what he intended even when challenged turned him into a macabre Titus Andronicus. The company judged tone expertly throughout, treading the balance between humour and horror and ensuring the stakes remained clear even without betraying the essentially comic aspect to these scenes.
Severity was instead carried by the sincerity of the Aminta and Albert plot, particularly when joined by Camilla Johansson’s Clarinda. The production didn’t shy away from the complexity offered by having two virtuous heroines, both in love with the same man and both true to their own value systems, and the scenes between the two – in which Clarinda sought friendship and help from Aminta – were moving in their sincerity. Clarinda contrasted with the other, sassier Amazons led by Hannah Jean Wood’s openly sexual Crocale – the scene in which she describes her faintly pornographic dream to Karli Bentley’s Juletta and Graham’s Hippolita ended in her shout of disappointment at her excitement having woken her up; and she couldn’t keep her hands off the drunken Tibalt. Wood’s proactive nature was the best realisation of the gender reversal offered by the situation, as she took control of emasculated men and organised them to suit her own immediate desires.
The production, completely uncut, didn’t try to resolve those issues endemic to a play of its age, such as Amazon Queen Rosella’s (Naomi Khanukayev) bizarre decision to allow the shipwrecked and near-feral men to choose which women they wanted to mate with (especially uncomfortable given that the Amazons were outnumbered), or her later decision to cede all power to her long-lost husband Sebastian. The production did, however, ensure that the issues with the latter were raised by having Sebastian, out of seemingly nowhere, give his daughter to Diribssa’s Raymond without even slightly acknowledging her own desires. Raymond grabbed her quickly (an uncomfortable reminder of the behaviour he had been castigating Albert for) while she stood and squirmed next to him. It was pleasing to see the problems of the renewed Sebastian’s new-found power being made clear in this fast closing scene.
Elsewhere, the production found many wonderful complexities and connections. The malicious trio interacted wonderfully while deciding to tell Clarinda that the object of her affections already had a lover, pushing and shoving one another as they argued whether or not to speak. Clarinda’s shout of rage and betrayal sold the impact of this tremendously, but also made absolutely clear the beginnings of her going down the same path that her mother had years before, her rage at male betrayal fuelling her aggressive independence. Khanukayev’s dignity as Rosella kept this rage going at a more sustainable pace, and her quiet instructions and command throughout, even when facing down her rebellious Amazons, made her a formidable opponent to the similarly calm Albert.
I was delighted to see so complete a production of this undeservedly overlooked play, and the quality of performances and depth of individuation of characters did a huge amount to pull out the three main conflicting forces of the play, the complexities of allegiance and affiance, and the internal inconsistencies as characters betray their own ideals when faced with new circumstances. Raising enough questions to show the problems and darker edges of the text, it remained primarily celebratory, revelling in the humour of shipwrecks, thwarted cannibalism and happy coincidences.