Written and directed by Gary Lockley
Presented by the Golden Hinde
Featuring Nathalia Campbell-Smith, Patrick Strain, DK Ugonna, and David West
Thursday 15th August – 5th September 2019
If you’ve spent much time in London at all, chances are you’ve wandered past The Golden Hinde, a reconstruction of Francis Drake’s sixteenth century galleon, now moored on the South Bank and a popular tourist attraction. Perhaps you’ve even surrendered a fiver to step on board, and viewed the ship’s compartments and faux-historical furnishings. But have you ever taken part in a pirate summit deep in the bowls of the ship, and investigated its cabins and crew to uncover dark secrets and dastardly deeds?
Probably not, but starting this week there will be an opportunity to do just that, as the Hinde will be commandeered out of hours by the immersive theatre show Libertalia. Inspired by Captain Charles Johnson’s “A general history of pyrates”, the TV show Black Sails, and video game Uncharted, this story takes place during the Golden Age of Sail and the height of New World colonialism and mercantilism. Upon boarding the ship, audience members are sorted into four “crews”, each with an allegiance to a different pirate captains. These captains are played by the show’s four actors, each based on a real historical pirate. We have all been summoned here, we are told, by the revered Captain Tew, who wishes to tell us about his plans to found a free pirate colony called Libertalia – but who will lead this colony? And are the sails the only things on this ship that are rigged?
What follows this initial scene-setting induction is two hours of high seas intrigue and scandal, as audience members are encouraged to explore the ship and follow the actors around to witness snippets of dialogue which gradually reveal that something fishy is going on. Is there more than meets the “aye” to these pirate captains?
Libertalia is creator Gary Lockley’s first foray into writing site-specific interactive theatre, and he set the bar high for himself by securing such an impressive and evocative venue. Unfortunately, it’s a difficult genre of performance to master, filled with volatile elements and delicate lines to tread, and despite some excellent moments, it quickly became clear that this piece could have done with guidance from someone more experienced in the field. I (and other audience members, as we discussed abovedecks after the show) often found ourselves searching for depths and details which were simply not there: a diary left unguarded in the captain’s quarters turned out to be disappointingly empty, two audience members told me of how they riffled through an entire trunk of blankets only to find that it was just that, and though our captains gave us the vague directions to mingle with other crews to “find out information”, it quickly became clear that none of us had actually been given any tidbits to guard. In the age of Sleep No More and other rich, multi-layered immersive experiences, this felt somewhat underdeveloped.
That said, there were some wonderful moments of immersion and interaction. Finding a coded message and banding together with rival audience members to decode it – hunched over ragged bits of parchment, scrawling out messages and discovering plot twists together – was excellent, as was singing a sea shanty with these newfound comrades later on. Interacting with the actors was great fun; I especially loved talking to Nathalia Campbell-Smith as Anne Bonny, and hearing about the woes and escapades of this real historical woman (more of this in future, please!). The cast had great chemistry with each other, and all the actors were animated, funny, and commanded attention and interest, as well as being able to improvise well with each other and the audience. Lastly, but most obviously, the ship herself was both stage and star of this show, and the undeniable coolness of pretending to be a pirate in an actual (reproduction) pirate’s ship was more than worth all the bumps to the head.
Without wanting to spoil the story’s ending, I do have to note that it quickly became clear that as the audience, our actions – our subterfuge and investigations and conspiring – had no real impact on the plot. While it’s absolutely possible to have great immersive theatre which provides the illusion of agency but whose story is ultimately pre-determined (the Gatsby immersive experience is a successful example), that illusion is key. Otherwise, all the audience’s efforts begin to feel like meaningless busy-ness, a filler between watching actors perform rehearsed scenes. This was the case in Libertalia, and resulted in a lot of dead time where we ended up making real-life small talk with strangers, or filling our (hour)glasses at the below-decks bar. This could be remedied by including more sub-plots, even if they don’t lead anywhere, deeper world- and character-building, and more active parts and activities for the audience to undertake; again, see Gatsby for examples of all this.
When the final scene played out, it was unsurprising to all of us who had put together the pieces much earlier on in the evening, but nevertheless a fun bit of drama. This was watered down somewhat by a parting monologue which aimed for rousing but landed on emptily didactic, full of vague platitudes about freedom and unity that could equally have been denouncing Brexit or supporting it (and what with the historical setting, and inclusion of a freed slave character as well as colonial privateers, there was so much more potential for meaningful exploration of complex themes). At the journey’s end, I disembarked the ship having had fun, but feeling that Libertalia’s maiden voyage left quite a bit to be desired. Hopefully the show will continue to evolve and adapt, as it could become something truly special.
Could also do with a talking parrot.
Previous review: Naked People Waking Up @ Etcetera Theatre, Camden Fringe