Monday, October 3, 2016

Remembering Pirates by Christopher Harley

Remembering Pirates by Christopher Harley.  Darlinghurst Theatre Company at Eternity Theatre, Sydney, September 16 – October 16, 2016.

Directed by Iain Sinclair
Q&A Author and Cast

Designers: Production – Alicia Clements; Lighting – Daniel Barber; Sound – Katelyn Shaw; Composer – Nate Edmondson

Cast:  Robert Alexander (Mr Darling); Fraser Crane (Peter); Emma Palmer (Wendy); Simon London (John); Stephen Multari (Richard)

Reviewed by Frank McKone
October 2

When is a play complete?  Darlinghurst Theatre Company is proud – as it should be – to focus on presenting new writing, such as  Remembering Pirates.  In the Q&A session after the performance I saw, there was much discussion about the development and rehearsal process, and the fact that major changes were made shortly before the season opened, and minor changes continued well into the run – and maybe there are still more to come.

My role as critic, of course, is to report on the performance I saw.  Usually I’m inclined not to report too much about the plot of a new play, to retain the surprise element at least for the first-run audiences.  But sometimes I see the need to distinguish between the quality of the production and that of the writing to explain my response on the night.

The great strength of the show was in the directing, the designing and the acting.  The cast is listed in the program without naming their individual roles, so it may be unfair to say that I was very impressed by all the performers, but most impressed by Emma Palmer as Wendy (whose off-stage photo I am sure of).

The set design with its wind-blown shadows behind the window’s curtains was genuinely magical.  Like the characters, I found myself obsessed with thinking there were figures out there – until there really was one.  With eerie lighting, sound effects, and thunder and lightning, dramatic tension built – until the whole wall and window finally came crashing down in a symbolic collapse of childhood memory into harsh adult reality.

This is where the plot comes in.  In J M Barrie’s Peter Pan story, which over the past century has become ingrained into the minds at least of English-speaking children around the world, the children of the Darling family – the sensible Wendy and her two much younger brothers, the elder John and the younger Michael – escape the confines of their bedroom by flying through the window to the treetops at the instigation of a sort of fairy, Peter – the boy who never grows up.  High up in the tree, they are attacked by pirates.  One might wonder about Barrie’s state of mind when writing this story for children, but his imagination has shone through the generations.

These children are fictional, of course, but what if we were to imagine them as grown-ups.  And what about Mr Darling, when his children are in their thirties?  Christopher Harley wonders what they would remember, and reveals a story of what ‘really’ happened.  Though I have some doubts about the psychological truths of his story – which is why I need to tell you about it – the play raises an important question.  How reliable are any of our memories, and are we actually out of our minds when we feel we would like to go back to a previous time when things were ‘better’?

From a political point of view, I think about conservatives who seem to want to take us all back to the 1950s, for example.  And get themselves elected to parliament, what’s more.

In Harley’s play we find out little about Mrs Darling who I presume has died, but Mr Darling is now in a dementia unit, regularly rattling at the door and looking out the window.  Radio news voice-overs are about a missing boy, and Mr Darling seems to want to get out to search for him.  Wendy has brought him slippers, but he insists on waving them about, making demented semaphore signals.  She cannot calm him down, but when John visits he accepts his father’s delusions – and his father loves him, but not his daughter who wants him to recognise normal reality.

John has become a history teacher, rather mysteriously considering his peculiar behaviour: seeking out other men, but undermining any hope of establishing a long-term relationship by complaining when they make a move in his direction.  He sees Wendy’s attempts to help him as trying to mother him, as she did when he was young; yet he insists on staying overnight in the original Darling family home, where she now lives with her husband Richard.  John has his own house to go to; Richard is not impressed by John’s interference.

John still believes that Michael and he did fly.  How he became a teacher, I’d love to know.  But there’s more to the story.

Richard, for some reason with no explanation, has a loaded pistol in the house, with which he scares Wendy (and us) nearly ‘out of our skins’ (an expression used often by old Mr Darling).  When the pistol reappears in John’s possession later, we realise its presence is a simple device by the author to create expectations of disastrous events to come.  But why should John come close to suicide?

The back story is that when John and Michael had flown up in the tree and the pirates were attacking, John had pushed Michael off the branch, telling him to fly and get help (presumably from Peter Pan).  Wendy, on the ground under the real tree, saw the push, saw Michael fall to his death, dragged his body into the lake because she didn’t know (as a child) what else to do, lied to John that she had seen Michael fly, and kept her secret not only through the four months’ police search for Michael but even until the point in the play when her relationship with Richard is under stress from John’s behaviour.

John still believes that Michael is simply missing because he flew away.  Wendy’s now telling him the truth, including that she lied to him to protect him (as a child) from seeing the death of his brother, takes him to the original bedroom in the family home with the gun to kill himself.  At the last – very long moment – before he pulls the trigger, an apparently real boy bursts through the window.  John believes it to be Peter, who wants John to fly with him to Michael, except that Peter sees John’s eyes no longer are bright as in childhood.  He is an adult now, and can no longer fly.  As Peter goes to leave through the window, John shoots him.

In the final scene, Wendy and Richard say that John has shot a real boy – but no-one explains how he could have got to a 3rd storey window.  Then the whole wall crashes down over John who remains standing in the space which had been the window as the stage lights go down.

I can understand Mr Darling’s descending into dementia and being deluded about finding his long-lost son Michael (I’ve seen this kind of delusion in my real life), but I think the extended belief in flying in John is unlikely, unless he actually had some form of schizoid psychosis.  To suggest, as the play seems to, that the Peter Pan story, like belief in Father Christmas, might not be amenable to a more realistic understanding as children grow up, is a bit far-fetched.

So in the end I found that though there is a logic to the storyline, despite Richard’s unexplained gun and the unlikely claim that the Peter who came through the window was a real boy, the play turned out to be essentially a kind of murder mystery with Agatha Christie-like motivations. 

The idea of going back to an earlier happier time was certainly talked about, by Wendy and Richard as John’s behaviour became an intolerable interference in their current life.  It was also implicit in Mr Darling’s dementia: if he could find Michael everything would be all right again.  And the same is true for John.  But it is still a thought we might get from seeing the play, rather than one on which we focus while watching. 

So, though our one-time Canberran, the director Iain Sinclair could not be present for the Q&A, I can quote his thoughts about taking on this task:

The magic in Christopher Harley’s
writing is elusive but beautiful. When
you read the script dry, something
makes sense in your heart as you
are reading it then the moment you
disassemble it, it becomes impossible
to reassemble according to known
dramaturgical laws. He has a stage
language that is his own. The idea of
staging this script strikes me with an
equal measure of terror and fascination
– and that’s a good reason for any
director to put on a new play. It feels
like unknown territory and that’s the
most rewarding place for any artist.