“Once Were Pirates” is here at the Pleasance Dome from Adelaide and written by the Australian playwright Emilie Collyer. Other reviewers have judged this play to be too much of a metaphorical mouthful, but I made my peace with the obviously frivolous meaning from the get-go in order to hone in on the comedy. On this front, “Once Were Pirates” sails supreme.
No, I am troubled at leaving it there – let me row back a few leagues. The play is ostensibly about two pirates, Shane (Kyron Weetra) and Gareth (Joshua Mensch), who were tossed down a wormhole by a kraken, from the “golden age” of piracy into an altogether greyer one of call centres. These pirates are now marooned in digs and trying to make an honest living. They don’t even contemplate the dole, which I think demonstrates a classical strength of character. Yet their crisis is ultimately existential since they don’t in fact need any money. They never buy anything – all of their beautiful props are reportedly nicked from skips. And they have collected a lot of cool stuff, including a planet Earth helium balloon, a fish tank cum washing machine, and the original swearing parrot from joke lore.
If piracy represents youth, freedom, and a golden age of adventure in this story, then a metaphor has been taken literally. Rather than two “Peter Pan” hipster twentysomethings, who each passing day tells in an ever louder voice to grow up, Shane and Gareth are time-travelling pirates. The metaphor is dispensable – it is essentially the same story whether these two are pirates or graduates. So can we finally get down to the comedy?
Shane and Gareth might be sought after for children’s parties as pirates but they are really, beneath the costumes and metaphors, clowns. Like genuine clowns, they are tragic. They drip with pathos and all of the worry in the world is dumped on their shoulders. Like most clowns, however, they also quarrel and get into a muddle. There is a bromance between these pirates and they are friends even when they are enemies. You will know the character – you will have no doubt met him before, maybe when smoking outside a metal nightclub – the fierce-looking modern Viking who is actually, at heart, what was once called a hippie. Each swashbuckler has the head of hair of four men, with Weetra in particular sporting a gorgeous headdress of storm-tossed curls.
There is not much more to add. “Once Were Pirates” is so happy to be itself that it does not even bother to solve its own quandary by thinking up an ending. We leave these pirates a bit older, vaguely wiser, but still more or less pirates.