MOBY DICK, Sport for Jove at the Reginald, Seymour Centre, 11 August-26 August 2018. Photography by Marnya Rothe: above - Danny Adcock and Rachel Alexander; below - the company; below again - Jonathan Mill and Francesca Savige
It would have to be Orson Welles who decided to adapt for the screen Moby Dick, Herman Melville’s classic novel of 1851. The giant of cinema taking on a giant of American literature has a definite whiff about it of Captain Ahab and the Great White Whale. And it was as unsuccessful as the vengeful captain’s pursuit of the creature that had taken his leg years before. Welles’s Moby Dick was never completed, another version was lost and this curious meta-play is what remains.
Taken from 500+ pages of prose as dense, elliptical, poetic, (melo)dramatic, symbolic and charged with subtext as any of its contemporaries, this Moby Dick inevitably loses something when distilled to just 80 minutes. Missing is much of what lies beneath the surface. What remains is a not-quite ripping seafaring yarn that slowly builds from a flat, expositional beginning, through much “ooh-aaarr, avast ye, hardy hars” and rollicking sea shanties to the climactic moments of Ahab’s fatal encounter with his nemesis.
The production – handsome on Mark Thompson’s moody timber and metal set – is energetic and well-wrought by director Adam Cook. The railed upper level of the Reginald is employed to hang ladders which ingeniously double as rigging and, when taken down and manipulated by the crew, as abstract and very effective whaleboats.
With the exception of narrator-crewman Ishmael (Tom Royce-Hampton ) and Ahab (Danny Adcock) the fine cast wrestles with characters which are leached of most of their colour and meaning by the too-lean script. Wendy Mocke has the best of it as the South Sea Island harpooner Queequeg, not least because she is a powerful presence and the character is simply more interesting as a female. There are also extra nuances to be had in her tribal rituals and background (a reluctant princess expected to go home and take on the mantle of chiefdom).
The cabin boy Pip is blessed with the most recognisably human role and Rachel Alexander makes the most of it, particularly in moving exchanges with her master Ahab. S/he also affords Adcock respite from constant full throttle psycho-captaincy and glimpses of the suffering man beneath the malevolent carapace are briefly seen.
The remaining roles are cardboard cut-outs. Francesca Savige, in particular, is wasted as Starbuck, despite her valiant efforts to inject flesh and blood and thoughtfulness into the role. Jonathan Mill, too, is a promising physical presence as Stubb but he is given nothing to work with. And the same can be said for the rest of the hardworking company.
The almost total absence of drama can be laid squarely in the lap of the scriptwriter. There is a gripping set-piece whale hunt midway which is choreographed and enacted with thrilling conviction and effect (movement director Nigel Poulton). It serves to highlight how little else goes on; yet it’s hard to see how much more could be drawn from the piece without recourse to a massive CGI whale, megalitres of blood and some serious ocean weather.
As it is, the ho-hum, patchy lighting (Gavan Swift) nor ill-thought out sound design (Ryan Patrick Devlin) do little to lift the mood or temperature and their overall contribution is mostly negative. By way of contrast, however, as well as the effective set, Mark Thompson’s costumes are a clever mix of period, colour and texture. Blues, greys, light, dark, white, ash, and sand suggest the various moods and movement of the north Atlantic (the doomed whaling ship “Pequod” sets sail from New Bedford) and other ocean-scapes.
The pictures created on the stage – almost tableaux and effectively stylised – are frequently striking and memorable. It’s like watching and listening to a graphic novel and as such it’s fascinating. A pity about Mr Welles, though; he should have stuck to rosebuds.