THEATRE / Nelson at sea: Paul Taylor on Columbus and the Discovery of Japan at the Barbican

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The Independent Culture
Richard Nelson neatly sidesteps the political correctness problem in Columbus and the Discovery of Japan. It's only in the last few minutes of this three-and-a-half-hour epic that land is sighted, which gives the hero scant chance to get into his stride as a colonial oppressor. Dramatising first the struggle to find financial backing for his first expedition and then the chequered voyage itself, the play presents us with Columbus the likeable con-artist, a man of dubious background, snobbish aspirations, and next to no experience as a mariner. Capable of comic descents into pettiness and cowardice, he is a flawed visionary who manages to capture public interest in his mad schemes.

But it is the cock-up theory of history that this play espouses, as is evident from the novel way it links the financing of Columbus's expedition with the contemporaneous expulsion of the Jews from Spain. We see how certain wealthy Jews, scenting their future fate, decide to seek royal approval for Columbus's enterprise. Raising money for the scheme will enable them to sell off large amounts of their lands and businesses without suspicion (and salt away the bulk of the profit in North Africa to where they will flee).

In a more comic vein, an air of undignified accident detracts from the triumphant end of the voyage, too, when land pops up only just in the nick of time to convert Columbus from defrocked admiral to legend in his own lifetime. It doesn't help that, even in this hour of glory, he manages to put on a display of small- mindedness over money. And it certainly doesn't help that he thinks he has landed in Japan.

The conception is good and there are scattered amusing moments, but the play short-changes you emotionally. You know from the start exactly where it's going, yet, in its desultory progress, it always seems to be going nowhere. One key problem is that you never see the contradictions in Columbus from anything other than a detached perspective. His inspiring aspects are under-written, as are the characters who are let down by him. The character doesn't arouse conflicting feelings in you, in contrast to some of Jonson's fantasising frauds and inverted idealists. Jonathan Hyde is a winning rogue, with wonderful attacks of bemused vagueness when about to be rumbled, but I wonder whether the part also needs some of the fretting intensity of an Anton Lesser if it is to involve an audience over that length of time.

Nothing in John Caird's production convinces you that the play is emotionally big enough for a main stage. Perhaps wisely, Timothy O'Brien's designs squeeze the action on to various little mini-stages (representing ship's cabins, inns, etc) which slide on through the acres of surrounding space. Nelson (a wonderful dramatist on form) has called the play 'a Chekhovian epic'; this reviewer, though, was uncomfortably reminded of a less elevated genre - the undergraduate revue sketch.

Booking: 071-638 8891.

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