Ship of Fools by Andrew Bovell. Directed by David Atfield for Season at The Street, September 20-30, 2000, 8pm. Professional. Book at The Street Theatre 6247 1223.
With a strong team of well-known local actors - Mary Rachel Brown, Tim Wood, Lenore McGregor, Iain Sinclair, Clara Witheridge and Stephen Barker - some will like this production while others will feel less enthusiastic. I began on the less-than side, felt positive at interval, and found myself swinging quite violently through the second half. I've ended up ambivalent.
The play is an intriguing parallel between two stories: how the medieval city of Basle removed its "problem" misfits by launching them in a rudderless leaky boat on the River Rhine; and how Centrelink sends our modern problematicals to Work for the Dole, with equally indefinite expectations, especially for the participants.
The result is daunting for the actors, each playing some quite strongly developed characters interspersed with brief cameos, in both modern and medieval periods. There was a tentative feel about the opening night, as if the production needed to build self-confidence, like many of the characters. Hopefully, a smoother flow will come through the season, especially because the stage design by Phil Rolfe works very well.
Alongside the plots is a philosophical examination - a fool is a person who is a fool but doesn't know it, while a wise person is a fool who knows it. The Pope's inquisitor into the Basle debacle faces his own hypocrisy and ends up in the image of Christ crucified. But the Fool, who knows he is a fool, ends up confused like the rest of us.
I think this degree of complexity needs a Shakespeare to make it work on stage. Bovell makes a brave attempt, but Shakespeare he is not, and it would be difficult to succeed in the modern abbreviated style. Bits work - like McGregor's Mother Superior, Brown's old woman Margery Clermont, and where the modern women discover the rapist on the bus - but the parts remain less than the dramatic whole we know we need.
Maybe the problem is simply that we really have no solution for the misfits and misbegottens of society, and the play provides no answer for us.
© Frank McKone M.A., F.A.C.E.
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