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The Good Hope

Herman Heijermans
Translated by Lee hall
Cottesloe, RNT
(2002)

The very prolific Lee Hall has produced a wide variety of different plays not to mention the screenplay of Billy Elliott. Once again, with his new version of this 100 year-old Dutch play he has tried a rather different style.

It is very hard to find a word other than a bleak to describe both the play and life for fisher folk in Whitby at the turn of the last century. Apparently, this play which was originally set in Holland had such a major impact that as a direct result, the legislation relating to the fitness of fishing vessels was rewritten to prevent the kinds of disasters related. If for no other reason than this, it is good that the National Theatre has decided to revive a play that may well not have been seen on a London stage since Ellen Terry played the lead part in 1903.

In this production directed by Bill Bryden, the tragic part of Kitty Fitzgerald is played by Frances de la Tour. She is consistently grief ridden as she starts the play as a widow who lost not only her husband when a fishing vessel the Clementine disappeared but also two of her sons. However, because life in Whitby is so hard, she now feels obliged to send her other two sons James and Ben to following in their footsteps. This is the direct consequence of severe economic hardship that is well defined by the playwright. She is a strong woman and needs to be as she tries to support her two sons and her niece Jo played well by Diane Beck.

James, the dry but avuncular Steve Nicolson, has just been released from six months' hard labour in prison. In his view, this was the consequence not of his having struck an officer but of his desire to better himself by reading socialist literature. Even though he is technically banned from sailing for 10 years, the rich ship owner Christopher Makepeace is willing to take him on for a trip on The Good Hope as a favour to his mother. The relationship between Christopher and Kitty is unclear being some combination of master and skivvy on one hand and possibly lovers on the other.

Ben, played by Iain Robertson, is 17 and absolutely terrified of going to sea. He knows that his father and two brothers have already died and has a premonition of his own fate. This is not assisted by hearing a rumour that the shipwright, albeit drunken, has told the owner that the timbers are rotten and that the ship is a floating coffin.

The period up to the interval is played out in the town square in front of the local pub. The ultra realistic set designed by Hayden Griffin, together with folk music and dancing by John Tams and Chris Coe respectively, all add to a feeling of time and place. This, together with the acting of the ensemble cast, gives a real feel for the grimness of this kind of life. It is almost inevitable that any woman in the town will have lost at least one loved one to the sea.

After the interval, the action moves first into Kitty's living room on the night that a force 9 gale is battering the town and subsequently, by use of a revolving stage set to the office of Makepeace. Lee Hall does a good job in presenting the bitterness of life particularly in a scene where the women of the town relate their losses. To bring it home to both the characters and the audience, one of them says "these aren't just, tales these are people's lives". There is also an inevitability about not only the consequence of sending a rotten vessel to sea but also the destitution that will come and to the many widows and orphans of the town.

This play is fiercely political and very rewarding. There is some good acting including a couple of lovely cameos by John Normington and Sheila Reid. It has a few light moments but generally, reflects the reality of this kind of life and is short on laughs. It is none the worse for that and for anybody interested in social history or in finding what they might have escaped from by being born a couple of generations later it is a must.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher