I first saw Ben Benison’s play, Jack Lear, at Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough, in November 2008. It was a sparse production on an almost bare stage, Barrie Rutter playing Jack and Andy Cryer playing Edmund, with carried on props and table cloth colour-coding to set the action. It was admirable, the acting was, of course, excellent and it was a brave commission for the theatre-in-the- round, but it felt as though the piece hadn’t quite found its beat or sense of place yet.
Fast forward ten years to the city of Hull, where recent times have cemented a fresh pride in its fishing heritage with books, plays, significant anniversaries, murals and memorials bringing alive the importance of the local history to both a new generation of residents and a wider cultural audience. It’s a history that Rutter himself is all too familiar with, born and brought up on the Hessle Road, the son of a Bobber, and having worked as a casual on the ships in his own student days. The revival of Jack Lear in this context, with new theatre staging innovations, the collective imaginations of a fresh set of creatives and that natural directorial instinct to revisit previous material, is inspired and timely. Benison’s careful trimming of Shakespeare’s King Lear, discarding the sub plots to discover a blank verse tale of a mardy, but wealthy, trawler-man with three men-daughters to inherit the fleet he has worked all his life to build, finally comes into its own, adding to the richness and depth of the canon of work emerging from the lives of the ‘three day millionaires’.
Jack Lear, obsessed with mythology, Nordic roots and Viking values, has named his daughters well. The eldest is Morgana, meaning ‘sea-circle’, but it cannot escape notice that she shares her moniker with the eldest of the three sorceress sisters in the Arthurian legends and with the natural phenomenon Fata Morgana once believed to be created by the witchcraft of this sister to lure sailors to their death. Freda, the second, is a derivation of the old Norse Fríða, named for a goddess known for her beauty, sexual allure, desire for gold and her capacity to kill anyone who got in the way, and whose father was Njord, the God of the wind and sea, seafarers, the coast and wealth, invoked by sailors before setting out on fishing expeditions and believed to have the power to calm or enrage the waters. Jack’s youngest daughter is of a gentler and truer mould, named Victoria; a nod to the Roman goddess of victory, the daughter of an oceanic nymph who straddled the boundaries between the living and the dead.
To complete the briny name connections, Jack’s own originates in the mediaeval ‘Jackin’, so popular at the time that it became synonymous with the word ‘manly’ and, later in history, a ‘Jack Tar’ came to denote those who made their living from the sea. Benison effectively provides us with a synopsis of the play in his character list – a tough macho patriarch whose life revolves around the sea, two daughters who have at their core a sinister intent, and a younger one, caught between the battles, but differentiated by her quiet confidence that goodness will prevail.
The delightful symbolism and intertwining of myth and reality that carries right throughout this piece is intriguing to see and really needs more than one viewing to get to grips with. Jack runs his family like a Viking ætt, for whom the intrinsic relationship between familial ties and combat is vital; his only rule as Chieftain is that they do not shed blood, and his expectation is that he will always have care and a home in their midst. Nicola Sanderson and Sarah Naughton, clad in oilskin frocks and boots all too reminiscent of Viking battledress, and brandishing swords honourably inscribed with their names, are direct, efficient and clever, seizing every initiative to control the fight for their freedom, improvising weapons from whatever, or whoever, is to hand. Benison has given them a text to work with that moves swiftly through the cruel narrative of their upbringing, their grasping desperation to find something better and have the money to follow their own choices, the hilarious pathos as they discover what they perceive to be a greater love and the ensuing tragedy as blood is indeed spilled and clan is broken; they tackle it all with superb dexterity and twin-handed skill.
It’s interesting to note that their ‘in the money’ scenes echo the 2008 production, with the same colour coding; scarlet for Morgana, a colour that is associated with sexual attraction, energy, power and primal life forces, and turquoise for Freda - a colour said to be symbolic of new beginnings and to harmonise the male and female parts of a person. This clever device gives Sanderson and Naughton precious respite from the homogenised man-daughter rhetoric and allows their characters to shine as individual females in a way that is pure delight.
Reprising his role as not-so-beloved Edmund, Andy Cryer, as oily as the fish catch, is utter lecherous, avaricious, glitter-balled, disco-dancing joy. He takes his audience into his confidence, deceives the sisters and ultimately gets his come-uppance as all villains must, but the style, humour and energy he does it all with endears his audience to him all the more.
Victoria, played by gorgeous Olivia Onyehara, is the sister set apart. She carries no sword, but her femininity as the one left in port to keep home, under-girded by a strength and determination that will not allow her to be brow beaten into a hasty decision or given less than she is due, proves to be the greater weapon. When she does make her choice, knowing that it will not be an easy one, her compassion, honesty and thoughtfulness are transparent. Benison has not given as many lines to Victoria, and at first glance it may seem that she has little to establish her identity, but Onyehara makes the very most of every syllable and endorses them with an assured, elegant presence that needs no further words.
It would be hard to imagine the role of Jack being played by anyone other than Rutter. The sheer physical energy and versatility as he traverses the mind of a father whose moods are as inclement and tempestuous as the ocean he sails is mesmerising, and his descent into dementia and placement in the care home he feared is every bit as heart-wrenching. The point that he throws off his dressing gown to reveal the suit of a three-day-millionaire will live long in the minds of those who know the history of Hull, as well as serving as a stark reminder that inside every dementia sufferer is a person with a vibrant, colourful life story. The pleat backed jackets and wide bottom trousers were a design known only to Hull trawlermen; one tailor who made them wrote,
‘…the widest width I remember us making was 28 inch, because the material in total would be 30 inches and you needed the two inches effectively to sew it edge to edge. He looked like a schooner in full sail.’*
It is this kind of detail added into the production that elevates this particular rendering of Jack Lear from being a piece that is simply coast based to something that has a rhythm and resonance that is pertinent to Hull and its heritage.
Kate Unwin’s set is atmospheric and eerily beautiful, especially when combined with the lighting talents of Aideen Malone. Eliza Carthy’s folk songs and shanties add layering and texture that are, at times, Celtic in quality; the lone drum setting the pace, the version of ‘Three Day Millionaire’ a joyous uplifting note to leave the theatre on, but the company singing ‘Kings of the Deep’ in rich a capella voices at the very beginning is the real spine shivering musical treat.
Jack Lear was good when it had its first outing, but ten years on it has matured into something that belies the usual adage of ‘never go back.’ Rutter’s decision to reclaim this intelligent script is a wise one and in the hands of a wonderful company and creatives with new vision it is an alluring production well worth seeing.
Jack Lear is at Hull Truck until February 2, and then moves to
Northern Stage from February 12 - 16.
(*Wilson, R (2015) – Trawlermen Interview 1: Recorded conversation with C Day.)