Theatre503 26 October – 19 November. Reviewed by Claire Roderick
Jay Taylor’s debut play is full of emotion, intelligence and dark humour. Set in a lighthouse on an unnamed island, in a dystopian future/past/present, The Acedian Pirates raises all sorts of uncomfortable, and unanswerable questions about war and occupation.
Acedia, we are helpfully told by Jacob, is a state of apathetic listlessness, a moral failing that ruins great men. Jacob is a young, bookish soldier, recently transferred to military intelligence and the lighthouse. In stark contrast to the older, more experienced men, he questions his orders and their entire mission, asking why they are occupying the island and what good they have done. Nobody seems to know why the war started, or what they are fighting for, instead spouting recruitment slogans about serving the Capital State, helping and doing good.
On the upper floor of the lighthouse is a woman. Nobody has seen her, except Troy, son of the leader of the Capital State, who brutalises her. The men call her the moon, and Helen, and a whole mythology, and prophecies, have evolved around her, as both armies prize her.
Cavan Clarke’s wonderfully nuanced performance as Jacob is the beating heart of the play, watching his spirit break as he realises that beneath all the rhetoric, no one can justify their actions during the occupation, and that he has killed men for no worthwhile reason. Matthew Lloyd Davies’ Ivan has just the right mix of world weary cynicism and self-preservation, Andrew P Stephen as Bernie begins as a typical martinet but allows some sensitivity to creep through the rage. Marc Bannerman’s Bull is aptly named, a man of few words who simply obeys orders, which makes his revelations about Sixsmith’s death seem almost poetic in a beautifully measured performance. Rowan Polonski gives Troy a deliciously unhinged sense of danger, but still allows the audience to see the spoiled and scary brat beneath. Sheena Patel as Helen is an ethereal figure exuding calm – just as her myth deserves – until we get to see her as an actual woman, rather than the men’s idealised vision.
There are no huge battles in this play, just a very effective and visceral choreographed sequence by Clarke – most of the time the men sit around smoking or drinking, waiting for orders and reminiscing about fallen comrades. The circular set is claustrophobic, limiting the actors’ movements, adding to the sense of frustration and tedium, and hinting at the circles of hell. Taylor offers no answers to the questions he raises – the decision to intervene and occupy another state, and the actions of soldiers during military occupations are issues that still haunt the UK – because there are no easy answers. Taylor layers war myths and ideals about honour in the script, and proceeds to tear them apart by showing the ordinary men and the effects of war on them and their morality.
The Acedian Pirates is a stunning debut from Jay Taylor – tightly written and filling every moment with meaning. Well worth a look.