Paintings at British maritime museum brought to life through theatre

Bold drama on high seas

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 14 April, 2015, 6:14am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 14 April, 2015, 6:14am

Almost nothing can be revealed about Against Captain's Orders, A Journey into the Uncharted, except that it has been created by British theatre company Punchdrunk. It shockingly urges participants to ignore the stern orders invariably given to museum visitors and is happening at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich, London, until the end of August.

It is a journey that begins in a little boat for a crew of six- to 12-year-olds and their grown-up escorts, and leads into surprising spaces. (So far, only one terrified and weeping little girl has had to be fast-tracked to the exit.)

Punchdrunk's first work for a museum was created after talks with the staff, many tours of the galleries at the National Maritime Museum and a guided tour through the museum's cavernous stores, which hold hundreds of thousands of precious, fascinating or downright weird objects.

The result is a piece woven around four apparently real objects from the collection, and threaded with salty yarns of real characters - including the favourite privateer of Elizabeth I, Sir Francis Drake; the lighthouse keeper's daughter Grace Darling, the hero of a famous 19th-century rescue; and Captain Bligh, who navigated and rowed himself thousands of kilometres back to safety after being cast adrift in the mutiny on the Bounty.

When Felix Barrett founded the immersive theatre company in 2000, the name was intended to signify that their audiences should emerge staggering, bewildered, enthralled … punch-drunk.

At the end of each show in Greenwich, the faces of the emerging crews - and museum director Kevin Fewster, who signed up himself for an hour before the mast - are full of hilarity and astonishment. Fewster was particularly moved by one boy who put a consoling arm around his father, and assured him: "It's all right, Daddy, we did it!"

Audiences should pay close attention to noticeboards. One warns: "Keep all phones away from parrots." I yearn to attend the lecture on penguin husbandry to be given by Jim Cooke - in Antarctica. It can be disclosed that knickers embroidered with the word "Indomitable" do not form part of the show. Robert Blyth, senior curator of world and maritime history, knows they exist but failed to find them when he guided the Punchdrunk company around the museum's stores.

The main store is on an old military base, behind a high, green wire fence in south London, and reputed by the more imaginative local youth to be a place where zombies dwell.

Audiences will be released into the galleries with a hunger to roam and discover its many treasures

The buildings could belong in Alice in Wonderland: from the outside they appear to be small, drab, red-brick bungalows. Inside, they reveal chambers that stretch to the far horizon, holding treasures such as a chamber pot from the White Star Line, loose covers in a particularly vicious flowery chintz from the armchairs on Queen Victoria's royal yacht, a figurehead of a very square-shouldered Edward VII from the dinghy-sized ship which his sons learned to sail on Virginia Water and a poignant bronze plaque which records the spot where one of those little boys, who grew up to be George V, stood during Cowes Week in 1935, a few months before his death, "his last visit to one of his ships".

There are enough objects allegedly made from the timbers of Lord Nelson's flagship Victory to build a reasonable-sized armada, and the moth-eaten (before it came to the museum) dark blue uniform coat the admiral himself wore in the battle of the Nile.

And there are binnacles. Blyth is very fond of binnacles. There must be binnacles somewhere in Against Captain's Orders, and there are certainly objects that appear to share their DNA.

There are, Blyth points out, beautifully elegant brass and mahogany English binnacles, and "hideous, vile, grotesque, monstrous German binnacles". There is a Japanese binnacle, with labels and instructions in Japanese, and a neat little brass plaque proclaiming that it is, indeed, a Japanese binnacle. It is a national scandal that all the binnacles are not on display in the museum, but as Blyth conceded mournfully: "Even the greatest binnacle fancier in the world might begin to wobble."

The objective of Journey Into the Uncharted, is that audiences will be released into the galleries with a hunger to roam and discover its many treasures - but they must also remember that the usual museum-going rules now apply again.

The Guardian