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Earlier this year, Dan Fox, co-editor of frieze magazine, published the classy little volume Pretentiousness: Why It Matters. To call something “pretentious”, it argued, exposes snobbery on behalf of the critic. Surely, Fox says, it is better for art to aim high, no matter how flawed the result. The Acedian Pirates – the debut play by actor Jay Taylor, who played Thomas Wyatt in the RSC’s Wolf Hall/Bring Up the Bodies – brings Fox’s book to mind. From its grandiose title down, it takes on the biggest of themes – the psychology of warfare, the power of mythology – and while much of it lands very heavily, there is a compulsiveness to the experience. To watch The Acedian Pirates is to witness a voice finding itself in real time; a voice trying to find adequate expression for its own preoccupations; a voice crying to Say Something, rather than take the easy option (graduate flatshare comedies, this means you).
Perhaps for this reason, The Acedian Pirates was shortlisted for the inaugural Theatre503 Playwriting Award in 2014. It tells the story of 20-year-old Jacob (Cavan Clarke), a bookish, softly-spoken ingénue just recruited into a long-lasting military occupation. His colleagues make much of his “books” and “ideas”; this world does not value intellectual inquiry, only unthinking embrace of the status quo. In echoes of 1984 (“We are at war with Eurasia. We have always been at war with Eurasia.”), the country in which the play is set – known only as the “Capital State” – has been at war since, it seems, time immemorial. We don’t know why: all we know is that, throughout the play, and with diminishing returns, characters are given to gnomic utterances about how “all this” is “for her” – an ethereal, quasi-mythological figure who stands as testament to man’s innate proclivity to warfare. (“She is the moon, or so they say.”) Jacob may be in the intelligence division, but he has no idea what is actually going on – and after he is sent to the front-line, he begins to question the entire mysterious enterprise.
Taylor, certainly, has some keen moments of insight. A particular highlight is Jacob’s comment on what it feels like to kill someone who looked like him: “I thought, ‘This is weird, must be a bit like how it feels kissing a girl that looks like your sister.'” The line is stimulating, unaffected and, crucially, human. It’s a shame, then, that much of the play is not like this. All too often, the human element is subservient to the polemic, much of which falls flat. The climactic debate at the end of the play, when a disenchanted Jacob locks horns with his superiors for committing to a war based on a myth, is simply not interesting (“We don’t question anything, we just accept what we’re told”) – not least as it doesn’t feel as if Taylor has given serious consideration to the other side of the argument. In a Bernard Shaw play – and, surely, Shaw is the godfather of the climactic clash of ideals – what makes the dialectic so compelling is that you feel your sympathies darting rapidly from one side to the other. You feel how the author has truly grappled with the question, engaged with the persuasive arguments on the other side to the extent that you’re almost convinced yourself; like the devil in Paradise Lost, the enemy often gets the best lines. In The Acedian Pirates, this intellectual curiosity is largely absent. The counter-arguments to Jacob are either perfunctory rehearsals of the same old arguments about intervention or, alternatively, based on banal assertion; for a Shavian dialectic, “you don’t understand what it means to really fucking believe” doesn’t quite cut it. The mythological angle, too, is laid on thick: when we finally properly meet “her”, the reveal of her name lands with a great thud, as does the subsequent motif about pomegranates.
And yet, for all these blemishes, Taylor has no small talent. While the play falls short when it takes on general concerns, it excels in the particular. The Acedian Pirates takes place in a confined space – a lighthouse – where Jacob and his colleagues, the most notable of which is the grizzled veteran Ivan (Matthew Lloyd Davies), appear to be stationed. The conversations between these two are unhurried, digressive, often tangential – such as the virtues of sitting as compared to standing – and, at their best, are a wonderfully evocative study of fraternity among men far from home. Taylor is especially good on rhythm, the musical patter of phatic communincation. Here is Ivan telling Jacob about someone he knew who lost his eyesight after being gassed during a conflict:
JACOB. Then why couldn’t he see?
IVAN. Ah. Hysterical blindness.
JACOB. You what?
IVAN. Hysterical blindness. It was all in his head.
JACOB. All in his head?
IVAN. All in his head. Shell shocked.
JACOB. Shell shocked?
IVAN. What are you, a fucking parrot?
This is the talk of men thrown together, recalling Samuel Beckett’s concerns with boredom and repetition in a confined space. Significantly, the two tell each other stories. As a theme, The Acedian Pirates makes much of the importance of stories. In itself, this assertion is mundane; one could simply read a Marina Warner book instead. What is far more interesting – and what the play is best at – is evoking the conditions, the climate, in which stories are told. This is aided amply by Helen Coyston’s set, an austere and effective affair involving brick slabs, crates and an atmospheric bolthole window: this is a crucible where stories are forged, and male bonds too.
Male comradeship during violent conflict is an uncommonly rich theme, from the stories of Stephen Crane to the films of John Huston, and one with an incredible power to move. The Acedian Pirates gnaws around the edges of this, hinting at the transcendental nature of male bonds, only to retreat back into its default declamatory setting. It’s telling, then, what the one truly moving moment of the play should be. Around the beginning of act two, all of the men sit together and sing a plaintive sea shanty about serving one’s country. Here, one feels the enduring weight of history; the elemental appeal of the idea of duty; yes, the transcendental nature of male bonds. Certainly, Taylor cannot be faulted for wanting to steer the play towards a broader, more oratorical discussion of themes: he is a first-time playwright keen to impress, and he deserves praise for aiming high. The irony of The Acedian Pirates is Taylor is, indeed, quite capable of impressing; however, it’s the play’s brief understated moments, not the showpiece polemic around its general themes, that impress.
The Acedian Pirates runs at Theatre503 until November 19. Tickets are £15 (£12 concessions), with Pay What You Can Sundays.