THEATER The Guardian – Laura Barnett
A new stage show takes three real-life female buccaneers as role models
Just over a year ago, as Lucy Foster was approaching her 30th birthday, she felt, „for the first time in my life … an awareness of my gender“. An associate director with the acclaimed theatre company Improbable, she says: „It wasn’t that I was exactly thinking about having babies, but there seemed to be something in the ether – I was feeling less ambitious, less driven, and I was getting cross with myself about it. I spoke to other women of my age, and they seemed to be feeling the same thing.“
Foster came up with a phrase to sum up the frustration: she had, she decided, lost touch with her „inner pirate“. When she mentioned this, a friend suggested that she look up the exploits of two real, historical female pirates, Anne Bonny and Mary Read. „As soon as I read about them, I thought this was a brilliant starting point for a show – to link this idea of a woman trying to get in touch with her inner pirate, with these real stories of pirate women.“
The result is The Pirate Project, a show devised by Foster and others, and performed by her and Lucinka Eisler, Chloé Déchery and Simone Kenyon. An entertaining blend of knockabout slapstick, historical re-enactment and feminist treatise, the show sees the performers play themselves and three historical female pirates – Bonny and Read, two 18th-century women who sailed aboard the same pirate ship in the Caribbean, and the 19th-century Chinese pirate Ching Shih. Throughout, they pose several key questions: most importantly, what can today’s women learn from these piratical tales of derring-do?
The extraordinary life stories of Bonny, Read and Shih might have been written for the stage. According to popular legend, Bonny, the best-known of the three, fled to a pirates‘ lair from her oppressive father’s South Carolina plantation; there, she fell in love with a pirate captain, Jack Rackham, and disguised herself as a man in order to sail the high seas with him. Read was also a mistress of cross-dressing: she ran away to join the army, and later Rackham’s pirate ship, dressed as a man. Read and Bonny became friends, eventually attempting to defend their ship from the British navy while their male fellow crew members stumbled around drunk below deck. Ching Shih, for her part, is said to have been plucked from a Canton brothel to become the wife of a murderous pirate captain; showing not inconsiderable pluck, she struck a bargain with him, insisting that she would marry him only if he allowed her to lead his ship in the event of his death. The smitten captain agreed – and duly, when he died, Ching Shih became commander of the 1,500-strong Red Flag Fleet, one of the largest and most ruthless Chinese pirate operations.
Foster and her team were drawn to the women’s stories. „Part of the problem,“ Foster explains, „was that I felt I was apologising far too much, and I was too self-critical. These aren’t exclusively female traits, but they do seem predominantly female. You look at these women pirates, and you think, pirates aren’t apologetic. They say, ‚I want that booty off that boat,‘ and they swing over and get it. They don’t say, ‚Should I have done that? Am I a horrible person?‘ They were unconventional women, standing outside the norms of their time. So, in a way, they’re really useful role models.“
The Pirate Project doesn’t shy away from these less palatable aspects of the pirate image: between enacting scenes from the women’s colourful lives, the performers pause to ask themselves, and the audience, whether they really want to be like women who stood outside the law – and whose lives were still ruled by their relationships with men.
For Foster, the answer lies not in trying to emulate the piratical adventures of Bonny, Read and Ching Shih, but in using them as a means of discussing the qualities we women want more of. „I hope,“ Foster says with a smile, „the show is a way to help audiences, especially women, to find the pirate qualities that are helpful to them.“
• The Pirate Project is touring until 2 June. Visit www.improbable.co.uk