The fact that Moby-Dick is one of the most un-stageable books imaginable hasn’t stopped writers and directors from having a crack at it over the years. But perhaps it should. How do you meaningfully translate old Captain Ahab’s rage and relentless pursuit of the white whale on a lime-lit stage? Where do you begin? How do you fit the mythically grizzled characters written into the book’s 700 or so pages inside an auditorium? To say nothing of the ship, the whale and 35,000 buckets of seawater.
Surely, bringing to the stage a new adaptation of the original ‘Great American Novel’ is going to be both costly and doomed to failure. It is, to be glib, about as futile a pursuit as old Ahab’s for the whale. Or so I thought, before I saw the remarkable new adaptation by writer and director Sebastian Armesto.
Instead, the ensemble behind the production, simple8, has hereby managed to pull off a rather spectacular victory. A series of coup de théâtres that conjure bawdy tavern piss-ups, daring sea chases and thrashing sperm whales through a few shrunken planks of wood, a song and a dance, and a clattering of old ships’ lanterns. The budget must have been all of about 20 quid. And the techniques of ‘poor theatre’, which the group specialises in, have rarely proved so vivid or evocative.
In Armesto’s production, scenes are threaded together on a string of old sea shanties and folk songs that the cast bundle into – picking up a squeezebox here, or a mandolin there, accompanied by a bit of old boot-stomping and some very neat vocal harmonies. This is simple8’s second production in a short season at the unrepentantly hoary Arcola Theatre (following their inventive version of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari), and they know the space and use its acoustics incredibly well. For example, during the scene at the Spouter Inn where our hero, Ishmael (Sargon Yelda), retires from the bar to share a blanket with the noble savage Queequeg (Leroy Osei-Bonsu), the Inn’s revellers in full song retreat off-stage down a passageway until the din of their rowdiness becomes that of a downstairs party, rudely rising through the floorboards to Ishmael, now tossing and turning in the bedclothes.
The production isn’t perfect. There are some fairly watery American accents sloshing about early on, and the script – which sticks reasonably close to Melville’s text, at least at the beginning – has been snipped and pruned so much that some of the characters are drawn a little thin to say the least. The aforementioned Queequeg, for example, has spent an entirety of 30 seconds in Ishmael’s company before he proclaims them “married – not like man and woman, but brothers”.
Still, let’s not beat about the bush, simple8’s Moby-Dick is an assured and impressive achievement. Performances on the whole are excellent and capped, perhaps, by Joseph Kloska as Ahab. Histrionically ambling his way about the boards, Kloska’s Ahab is seen in almost constant mid-chew, as if there were a scratch on the roof of his mouth that would heal if only he’d stop tonguing it – a nervous tick doubling as an apt physical manifestation of the destructive obsession to have revenge on the whale that took his leg.
First and foremost this is an ensemble piece though. And its true strength is in its staging, which is full of the most astonishingly innovative ideas. The whaling scenes are especially good where, with total togetherness and blended voice, the cast successfully manages to bring before the audience’s sight the thunderous splash of the fish’s tail fin and Ahab’s final battle with Moby-Dick.
Read the Exeunt Q&A with simple8’s Sebastian Armesto and Dudley Hinton.