Review: The Acedian Pirates at Theatre503

Jay Taylor’s debut play The Acedian Pirates was shortlisted for the inaugural Theatre503 Playwriting Award in 2014. Now, two years later, it’s come back home in dramatic, devastating style, to confront one of the oldest questions in history: why do human beings go to war?

Jacob, a young man newly transferred to the Intelligence division, sits in a lighthouse with his fellow soldiers, listening to the sounds of a mysterious woman being interrogated on the floor above. We don’t know where they are; we don’t know who they’re fighting or what they’re waiting for. We don’t even know when the story’s set – it could just as easily be ancient past, present day or dystopian future. And somehow that doesn’t matter; this is, after all, just one more war in an endless series of wars, so who cares where or when it’s taking place?

Photo credit: Savannah Photographic
Photo credit: Savannah Photographic

Besides, it’s another question that interests Jacob: why they’re at war at all. Why, he wonders, is he called a hero for killing fifteen strangers just because they wore a different uniform to him? What is it that keeps them all there, on that island, year after year? The other men answer in meaningless rote responses – that they’re there to fight, to help, to do some good – but even they seem unconvinced. In frustration, Jacob finally turns to the only other person who might be able to answer him: the woman upstairs, the one nobody’s seen but who all nonetheless firmly believe to be “everything”.

This isn’t a particularly easy play, either in its heavy subject matter or its intellectual tone; I’d recommend brushing up on your Greek mythology before leaving home. Yet despite the sophisticated vocabulary and the numerous classical references, Jay Taylor’s writing still captures the natural speech patterns of a bunch of men who’ve been cooped up together for a long time. Light-hearted banter, explosive rage and wistful nostalgia combine in a script that’s not only totally believable but also brilliantly delivered by an excellent cast.

Cavan Clarke leads the way as Jacob, skilfully managing his character’s transition from youthful arrogance to the very brink of madness. His quiet thoughtfulness is matched by that of Marc Bannerman as Bull, a man of so few words that when he does choose to speak, we listen. Meanwhile Ivan (Matthew Lloyd Davies) and Bernie (Andrew P Stephen) rarely shut up, constantly full of stories from the glorious past; whether they’re actually their own stories is neither here nor there. Rowan Polonski is the oddly charismatic commanding officer Troy, who seems quite mad but may just turn out to be the sanest of them all, while Sheena Patel is a refreshingly sharp-tongued damsel in distress.

Photo credit: Savannah Photographic
Photo credit: Savannah Photographic

Trapped as we are within the lighthouse – beautifully imagined by designer Helen Coyston – there’s a simmering tension in Bobby Brook’s production that has little to do with the fear of physical harm. Lighting and sound effects from Cat Webb and Simon Slater give us a powerful impression of the conflict raging outside, but the real struggle is unfolding within these walls, and the only question is how and when it’ll reach its climax.

The Acedian Pirates feels particularly relevant at a moment in our history when the habit of parroting dangerous ideologies without hesitation seems to be on the rise, and those who dare to disagree are accused of being unpatriotic or disrespectful. The play doesn’t offer any answers to its central question, but perhaps that’s because there simply isn’t one to offer. Or rather there are too many; the sad fact is we’ll always find a reason to make war against each other – even if, after a while, nobody can quite remember what it was.

Can’t see the map on iPhone? Try turning your phone to landscape and that should sort it. I don’t know why but I’m working on it… 😉

Interview: Jay Taylor, The Acedian Pirates

“Funny. Surreal. Savage,” says actor-turned-writer Jay Taylor, when given three words to sum up his debut play, which was shortlisted for the inaugural Theatre503 Playwriting Award in 2014, and opens at Theatre503 on 26th October. “The Acedian Pirates is a dark comic-drama about military occupation, the moral conundrum of armed intervention and the mythology of warfare,” he adds, when allowed a few more.


What led Jay to choose this weighty subject for his first play? “I wanted to write something about the way people mythologise conflict and also about man’s obsession with war,” he explains. “It seemed to me that Helen of Troy was the ultimate idol and myth, so I wanted to offer a radically different perspective on the ‘face that launched a thousand ships’. This play was intended to investigate belief, propaganda and the moral dilemma of intervention; all themes that seem very relevant considering the amount of instability and conflict in the world today.

“I hope it challenges a few perceptions and attitudes towards the military: their recruitment policy, their moral responsibility and their genuine intentions when invading or occupying another territory. But this is not intended to be a condemnation of the military or a pacifist diatribe. The crux of the play is the moral dilemma of intervention; for example, what would have happened if the allies had not intervened in the Second World War in order to defeat fascism?”

After 10 years as an actor, Jay’s finding it fascinating to approach the creative process from the other side: “I’m quite used to being in an audition environment, but being on the other side of the table for our casting process was a hugely informative experience. And being in rehearsals is fantastic – the actors are able to investigate their characters with great specificity and turn them into fully realised people. Plus, they’re not letting me off the hook with regard to the characters’ desires and objectives, which forces me to rethink certain aspects of the play. It’s brilliant.

“There are many transferable skills between acting and writing. Essentially they’re both about critical thinking and determining what characters, choices and attitudes best serve the story you are trying to tell. Acting also gives you a good ear for dialogue, as well as a desire to make every character as dynamic as possible. I’ve played plenty of characters that are purely there to exposit and give information to the protagonist. That sort of writing is lazy, so I try my best not to do that!”


Jay’s over the moon to see his work performed at Theatre503. “It’s thrilling. Theatre503 rightly has the reputation of being one of the most bold, ambitious and innovative theatres in London. For a theatre with such limited space and resources, their output is extraordinary. I’m delighted that my first play has been programmed there; I think it’s worth mentioning that I sent The Acedian Pirates direct to the theatre, through their unsolicited script submission portal. Their resident literary manager and dramaturg Steve Harper has offered invaluable support to me as a writer – this production wouldn’t be happening without him.”

The Acedian Pirates takes place in a lighthouse, with a set designed by Helen Coyston. “Helen’s been a fantastic addition to the creative team,” says Jay. “Having only seen the model box and costume design drawings, I think her design is going to be deeply atmospheric, offering a pressure cooker environment for the characters to inhabit. I’m personally looking forward to seeing how we cram six actors, a lighthouse, the moon, the sea and some pretty significant special effects all onto the diminutive stage at Theatre503! But we will and it will obviously be deeply cool and brilliant… I hope!”

Finally, what advice does Jay have for someone thinking about getting into writing, but not sure where to begin? “People often say to write what you know, but my advice is to be as bold, inventive and imaginative as you can. I love nothing more than going to the theatre and seeing something subversive, different and theatrical. I feel like our addiction to television box sets has stifled creativity and made theatrical exuberance unfashionable.

“Don’t write what someone else tells you to write or what you think might please someone. Think with your inner child; write about something that inspires you and something you really believe in.”

The Acedian Pirates is at Theatre503 from 26th October-19th November.