Ship of Fools

Andrew Bovell
A Theatre503 and Strike Ensemble co-production
Theatre503
(2007)

Woodcut by Albrecht Durer

With new hands taking the helm at Theatre503 one senses a fresh ferment of creativity as it hosts Strike Ensemble’s brilliantly inventive European premiere of this Australian drama, not least because for this production the theatre itself has undergone a total transformation.

Andrew Bovell’s play, first seen in Melbourne two decades ago, turns the mythological Ship of Fools into a medieval journey for a new dark age in Australia, blending a tale of 15th Century events in the city of Basle with a linked story of eight unemployed benefit-seekers, summarily rounded up and sent into the desert outback on a Government work-for-dole initiative.

To stage it in a small space requires great ingenuity. And thanks to Lucy Osborne’s clever design, most of the old conventional raked seating has been replaced with raised walkways surrounding a sunken acting area, creating an intriguing bear pit with concealed, slatted lighting.

This provides a symbolic setting for both the Basle council chamber at the start of the play and the creaking timbered deck of a riverboat, while just offstage lurks an unseen cross-country bus.

The idea of dispatching the dregs of humanity on a ship of fools bound for nowhere, has inspired countless pop songs, novels, paintings and screenplays — even The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. But its first creator was Sebastian Brant, a theologian who in 1494 published a lavishly illustrated lampoon of the Catholic church, characterised as a self-deluding cargo of fools floating down the Rhine in a leaky boat on its way to exile in Narragonia.

But his colourful tale eluded playwrights until, five centuries later, Bovell conceived the notion of turning it into a satirical exploration of how modern society deals with its outsiders, while giving the original story a more richly detailed historical background.

Thus we find the Basle councillors chewing the fat over how to deal with the city’s troublesome deviants and subversives, then coming up with the bright idea of launching them down the Rhine in a small, leaky barge, trusting that should these fools survive the voyage they will end up as a problem for some other town further downstream.

Indeed this happens when its motley crew first runs amok in Ghent, raping the nuns, then proving equally unwelcome in Rotterdam before being borne away on the choppy waves of the North Sea.

Meanwhile the councillors, having disposed of one lot of troubles, also find themselves in troubled waters when the newly-appointed Pope, angered by news of the scheme, sends his Papal emissary, powerfully played by Jonathan Oliver, on a fact-finding mission followed by punishment for the culprits.

Bovell dislikes English actors struggling with Aussie accents, so for this London production his present-day narrative has been turned into a New Labour scheme for dealing with the unemployed. But our overcrowded island lacks the necessary undiscovered, wide-open spaces to make his story work, and for dramatic credibility it would have been better to stick with the land of Oz.

At the same time the play’s cast requirements have been reduced from eight to six, which puts considerable pressure on Toby Frow’s actors, ever more constantly switching character and costume to cover all the roles between past and present.

Notable heroes of the evening are Richard Attlee as a Serbian illegal immigrant, thrust by government policy into some limbo-land, and suffering overwhelming guilt about the child he has been forced to abandon, and Lucy Briers in four or more roles delivering Bovell’s text with a ringing, poetic style.

Given the in-the-round playing, not all the dialogue is audible. But fine performances also come from Maggie O’Brien, especially effective as the culpable mayor and a mother superior, Sarah Corbett bringing an Hibernian note of troubled intensity to several roles, while Andrew Buchan makes a striking impression as the hooded, lantern-carrying narrator with haunted eyes.

The performance ends with a vividly staged scene of punishment, revenge and humiliation, involving huge quantities of blood-tinged, anti-Papal libations, some of which I shared with the luckless victim.

But the power of that closing moment also made me think that Bovell’s dramatic take on Brant’s Ship of Fools fable is just waiting for some composer and lyricist to turn it into a striking piece of musical theatre.

Reviewer: John Thaxter