REVIEW! Libertalia by Gary Lockley @ The Golden Hinde

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.

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Previous review: Naked People Waking Up @ Etcetera Theatre, Camden Fringe

REVIEW! Dracula, Creation Theatre @ The London Library

Director: Helen Tennison
Writer: Kate Kerrow
Cast: Sophie Greenham & Bart Lambert
2 February – 3 March 2019

Reviewer: Peter Hoekstra-Bass

Dracula 4 Sophie Greenham and Bart Lambert .jpg

Photo credit: Richard Budd

In the aftermath of Anne Rice, True Blood and Twilight it’s easy to forget the original bloodsucker to make us fear the dark, but Creation Theatre’s production Dracula is here to remind us in an evocative fashion.

The twist here is that Dracula takes place in the London Library, amongst the very books that, over a century ago, Bram Stoker used to research his seminal work of vampiric fiction. This is a fact only recently discovered by the library itself, a charming institution that seems itself torn from the pages of a romantic Victorian novel.

Creation Theatre is no stranger to site-specific productions, and has been staging them for over two decades, including last year’s original run of Dracula in Blackwell’s Bookshop, Oxford.

The play itself is a two-hander starring Sophie Greenham and Bart Lambert as Mina and Jonathan Harker, as well as several other secondary characters. In the aftermath of Jonathan’s encounter with Dracula on the continent and the death of Mina’s friend Lucy, we meet the Harkers as they grapple with grief, a new and flawed marriage, and a growing darkness neither of them wishes to address.

Though still firmly Victorian in themes and1950s in setting, Creation Theatre’s production makes great strides in adapting Stoker’s text for the twenty-first century, making it more palatable for a contemporary audience than the at times stilted pace and style of the original (I confess I have tried but never succeeded in reading the book myself).

Dracula 2 Sophie Greenham and Bart Lambert (Mina and Jonathan Harker).jpg

Photo credit: Richard Budd

Greenham and Lambert juggle their multiple characters well, but I often found myself longing for them to return to the central imperilled couple, where their chemistry was most keenly felt, rather than lingering on the secondary characters as the script did for large parts of the second act.

And speaking of the second act, the text itself is somewhat bloated, and saw me wishing it has been edited to a tight seventy-five minutes rather than the two hours with interval it stretched for.

As always with horror, whether on screen or stage, the monster is best when left unseen, and in the case of a figure as well known as Dracula, he can work his dark magic best when even left unmentioned. The strongest parts of the play were when the Count’s influence was felt but never mentioned, and despite cunning and eerie use of projected special effects and soundscapes, the monsters were always at their worst when they were at their most palpable.

The audio and visual design by Matt Eaton and Eva Auster respectively was mostly excellent and evocative, with the notable exception of a particularly egregious animated bat that looked straight out of Microsoft Word clipart circa 1998.

For a piece of site-specific horror theatre in as apt a site as you are likely to find, fans of all things vampiric are advised to catch Dracula at the London Library while they still can, as the season is expected to sell out.

Tickets

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