The image of the ship of fools was a much-loved medieval device that allowed satirists and artists to attack the powers of their time – which meant, by and large, the church and its instruments. It's an approach that playwright Andrew Bovell (a name you might know from Strictly Ballroom) has harnessed for the modern age in a play of that name which opened last Friday at the new Theatre 503.
One half of Bovell's tale is of 1492 Basel, known, as one of its burgher proclaims, "throughout Christendom for civility and sophistication", when the city council decides to get rid of the mentally ill, the disabled, and the heretic by putting them on a rotting, oarless, sailless barge and pushing off to an unknown fate. The other half is in modern Britain, in which the off-stage powers-that-be decide to ship a mismatched group of unemployment benefit recipients off to a mysterious job-creation scheme that might or might not be in Scotland.
Bovell's not only visiting the Middle Ages, but harnessing much of their rambunctious, scatological energy. Central to the historic tale, and linking together the centuries is the Fool (Andrew Buchan), who morphs into the modern-day delinquent Simon. One piece of dark comedy concerns the "mooning" to which the Ship's passenger's subject a bunch of well-meaning nuns; one running joke concerns the uncertain bowels of the mayor of Basel.
The language of Ship of Fools is poetic, almost Shakespearean, although in the sense of mischief there's more of Marlowe. Effective use is made of the repeats of whole passages in the two ages, with the image of the "half-built, half-broken-down" settlements in which both groups of misfits find refuge sticking in the mind, as are such philosophical notes as "a stranger in the company of the strange will at last belong".
This constant shifting across five centuries is challenging, but Toby Frow's production and the cast by and large handle it well, even in the tight, in-the-round confines of Theatre 503. Yet this is a play that might really blossom further on a larger, more conventional, venue – declamatory monologues are a tough ask in this setting, and Buchan at times struggles with the challenge, although his confidence grows as the evening progresses.
Of the rest of the cast, Jonathan Oliver, as Basel's defeated conscience, Monsiuer La Page, as the investigatory papal legate Pietro de Convinso, and as Roland MacIntrye, the bus driver employed to take the unemployed away, has the pivotal role and handles it with power and panache.
Maggie O'Brian as the housewife trapped in a loveless marriage is almost too irritatingly convincing, and that her Mother Superior doesn't reach beyond cliche is perhaps the fault of the writing rather than the acting. The same might be said of Sarah Corbett's Sunny, as the sort-of-reformed junkie concerned only for the fate of her heroin-addict, faithless boyfriend.
It is Lucy Briers who best handles the gender shifts demanded by the script (the town council of Basle being necessarily male while the majority of the unemployed lost of the 21st century are female); her quick, canny, but morally limited merchant Monscieur Schulze is notable.
The action comes thick and fast; the themes likewise – at times it can all be dizzying, as the audience is wrenched through times and ideas at speed, and the actors leap from character to character. Both the production and the play might benefit from a slowing and perhaps a winnowing (is the sexuality sub-plot really necessary, I wonder?)
But just as Durer in his Ship of Fools woodcuts crammed a forest of allegorical detail that has delighted viewers through the ages, so Bovell fills his stage with a thicket of ideas and comparisons that leaves the audience with a buzz unachievable by mere technical screen wizardry.
The production continues at Theatre 503 until March 10 (with online booking).