In the dying days of the Victorian age, British ship the Geminus lies becalmed in some far-off sea. Alone on the deck, the captain hears a splash; a half-drowned man climbs aboard. He’s escaped from another vessel anchored nearby, where he’d been imprisoned for killing a sailor for insubordination during a storm. The captain recognises a kindred spirit and - notwithstanding the man’s apparent crimes - hides him within his own cabin until he can safely put him ashore.
That’s the plot of Joseph Conrad’s short story The Secret Sharer, of which The Geminus is at heart a reasonably faithful interpretation. But there’s one thing Conrad never quite explains: why the captain of the Geminus would take such risks to harbour a self-confessed murderer, especially one he’s never met before. In playwright Ross Dinwiddy’s adaptation, the answer is simple: love, or at least lust, between two fellow seafarers who both are secretly gay.
I read the short story after seeing the play, and I have to agree that Dinwiddy is onto something. Conrad’s narrator does talk in quite some detail about his visitor’s “well-knit” body; he does reflect on lingering stares and touches, and he does immediately dress his unexpected guest in a pair of his own pyjamas (sorry, but that’s weird). Of course there are no overt LGBT+ references in Conrad’s hundred-year-old story, but - whether or not it’s what he actually intended - to a modern reader it feels pretty obvious what’s actually going on.
The problem is that, at least in my eyes, Dinwiddy’s adaptation is more a same-sex bodice-ripper than a serious re-examination. There’s lustful sex, yes, but there’s also some mildly childish titillation - like the inexplicable moment when the captain gives out orders half-naked, or the fact that the aforementioned his-and-his pyjamas are always unbuttoned to the waist. What’s more, the attraction between the two men is neither instant nor slow-burning, but lights up suddenly in a kind of mutual swoon. It’s well-acted, and the chemistry between John Black and Gareth Wildig is entirely convincing… but it’s desperately unsubtle all the same.
What’s also missing, for me, is any sense of peril. When you think about it for a moment, the men’s situation is dire: if the “secret sharer” were discovered, he would hang for his original crime, and the Geminus’s captain would surely hang too. There are several moments when they’re almost caught out, but their reaction is more a cheery delight at getting away with it than the profound relief of dodging the executioner’s noose.
Ben Baeza is impressive as the main antagonist, a cheeky second mate with no respect for authority, and serves as a gently humorous foil to the sometimes-ineffectual captain. There’s more overt comedy from Christine Kempell, who plays the very Welsh and entirely formidable woman who’s chasing the escaped killer. It’s a funny character cameo, but it takes a huge liberty with Conrad’s original text, and - perhaps as a result of that - doesn’t sit entirely comfortably with the tone of what’s around it.
All in all, I’m just not sure what to make of The Geminus. Perhaps I, a straight man, don't have the personal background to fully understand it; or perhaps some of the bare-chested swagger is intentionally tongue-in-cheek. Whatever else though, it’s an interesting take on Conrad’s work, and a clever demonstration that - without changing too much of his original text - a few extra scenes can tell a new and credible story.