Friday, 19 January 2018

Bound by Jesse Briton

The haunting sea shanties sung by the men appear to force them to see their conflicted lives in romantic terms, and so act with insane recklessness.

Härkeberga kyrka Church, Diocese of Uppsala, Enköping, Sweden. Medieval painting of Jonah and the Whale by Albertus Pictor (image photogaphed by Håkan Svensson)

Southwark Playhouse’s cavernous, faintly slimy Vault under London Bridge is a perfect venue for Jesse Briton’s tense play, Bound. Beneath the rumble of the trains, we fall into a watery world where six trawlermen are sailing out to sea to bring in a precious haul of fish to save their skins. The illusion of being inside a storm-tossed ship is brilliantly created by darkness and a dizzyingly swinging light, the sound of wildly flapping tarpaulin, and the men’s desperate clinging to each other and to the sliding table and chairs that make up the only set. The ocean is the invisible adversary. We never hear it – its waves; we only hear the boom of metal as the ship takes its hiding.  
That the style of the furniture belongs to the land rather than a ship sends the message that for these men their trawler – The Violet - is not only how they make their living, but is their home, and their fellow workers a surrogate family. Their hard, antisocial livelihood has taken its toll on their relationships on land, leaving them lonely and emotionally cast adrift and irrevocably bound into each other’s lives by ties of love and hatred, need and obligation. 
At least that is the case for five of the men. The sixth man is that classic staple of theatre: the ignorant outsider with whom the audience can enter a strange new world. Polish Kerdzic (played by the deftly comic Thomas Bennett) knows nothing of the realities of life on a trawler, nothing of the harsh economics that are driving the fishing industry to its grave, and nothing of the volatile relationships of the hardy, damaged men he first meets at the harbour. Kerdzic doesn’t have the best start: the others treat him initially with undisguised hostility because he’s an agency worker, undercutting their own rates, and the ship’s owner Woods suspects treachery when he learns that Kerdzic’s brother is on the crew of his rival’s ship, The New Hope. Kerdzic’s response to Woods’ interrogation is to rapidly descend into a kind of cringing, confused Manuel (immortalized by Andrew Sachs in Fawlty Towers), adding a good splash of slapstick to the drama, until looming disaster gives him the chance for gravitas. 
John McKeever brilliantly creates in Woods a man who is both a bully and compassionate, who is charismatic and manipulative while increasingly unable to control even his own emotions. He begins with a gorgeous but manic smile, and descends into a twitching wreck, yet still determined to hang onto his contested leadership. 
The play is punctuated by the men’s communal singing of sea shanties that resonate around the vault, telling of centuries of hardship and beauty, of loyalty and bravery in the face of the bountiful but cruel sea’s whims. As I listened to these haunting shanties, it seemed that they didn’t only reflect what was happening on stage, but that they created the action. They force the men to see their own conflicted lives in romantic terms, and so to act with an insane recklessness when a tragic turn of events calls upon them to be the heroes of their own beleaguered stories.

Bound premiered at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in 2009.

Copyright Catherine Rosario