Under The Black Flag

Published April 17, 2008

Have you ever wondered how Long John Silver lost his leg? Or why he wasn’t called Short John Silver? No? Well Simon Bent wants to tell you anyway, because his new play Under The Black Flag reveals this and much more about the fictional life and times of the fictional pirate Silver before he lost his leg. Caroline Bishop went to the press night at Shakespeare’s Globe. But if you want to find out what happened to the leg you’d better go and see it, because she’s not going to tell you…

Under The Black Flag is a raucous, bloody and highly entertaining look into the lives of a ship-full of pirates in the 17th century; a bunch of loveable rogues who, when they’re not nicking other people’s treasure, enjoy nothing more than getting drunk, being rude and eating cheese.

How a young, irresponsible and idealistic man called John Silver (Cal MacAninch) became the most infamous pirate of them all is the root of the story. As a young man, some drunken messing around with his father and friend Tom gets him into trouble with Oliver Cromwell’s troops, and he’s hauled aboard their ship as punishment, leaving his long-suffering wife and daughter behind. When the ship is attacked and taken by a motley crew of pirates, led by Captain Kees De Keyser (Nicolas Tennant), Silver’s fate is sealed.

Silver has a particular knack for making enemies – his first is the Mission (Robin Soans), whose son he kills in the fracas, and the second is the pirate captain Keyser. The novice pirate Silver challenges the Captain’s leadership at the Pirates’ Parliament, and becomes Captain himself, rubbing salt in the wound by copping off with Keyser’s niece and mistress. The stage is then set for a tale of revenge, torture, swordfights and much gore.

The violence is all done in a rather cheery way however. Bent’s script has many great lines and funny speeches, and the action is punctuated by songs with catchy refrains like “Kill The Swine”. The comedy is at times very English and slightly slapstick. There’s even a Welsh joke.

Bent notes in the programme that he has alluded to Shakespeare throughout the play, and this is apparent not only in the themes of vengeance, ghosts, disguise and a staging of Hamlet on the ship, but in some of the humour too. In one scene where Keyser traps and captures Silver in an olive grove, the pair of dysfunctional pirates he gets to help him have the same comic ineptitude as Dogberry and his sidekicks in Much Ado About Nothing.

Under The Black Flag is a tale of fate, good and evil, a corrupted hero and some nasty baddies who get their comeuppance. But above all it’s a swashbuckling tale of pirating which doesn’t take itself too seriously. Someone even says “Shiver me timbers”. What more do you need in a pirate tale?

CB