Rumours of The White Whale of Leeds abounded before the show itself hove into view (sorry for the nautical style…it’s infectious). Hints of the idea in development appeared on social media, then photos and videos, showing people diving balletically, or at least energetically, into the water. Billboards and posters began to appear around town, featuring two oil dark hands gripped a straining rope. More like an action movie than indie play. Hmmm…in-ter-est-ing.
Even if you’re a not a social media type, Slung Low in their beautiful silver Airstream caravan appeared in supermarket car parks and free summer festivals around Leeds to tell people about the show and give away tickets for free. Yes for free, as were all tickets for all performances. Then opening night comes and immediately social media is awash (sorry) with reactions (mostly summarised by ‘OMG OMG this is the best, best, best thing I ever seen. Go see it NOW) and indistinct photos of tiny little glowing figures, against a mass of dark water. One friend of mine uploaded 40 photos of the show. Considering the whole thing is only 80 minutes long that was impressive.
All of which means by the time it is my turn to find my way down to Leeds Dock, for the very last performance of the run, I already have a relationship with it. I have a mass of images and impressions in my head. None of which tell me what the show is but all of which draws me into pleasurable anticipation of finding out how they all fit together.
Leeds Dock is a strange little sleeve of the Leeds – Liverpool canal running beside the Royal Armouries and surrounded by what the developers undoubtedly called ‘desirable waterside living’ but the rest of Leeds calls ‘that empty bit next to the casino’. It is, however, a natural thrust stage made of water. As we arrive, friendly and confident (and all rather beautiful) people in Slung Low t-shirts and fluorescent jackets hand out the headphones and receivers and explain how to use them. Ah yes, it is a ‘headphone’ show, where the live voices of the actors are mixed with recorded soundtrack and fed direct in to your ears as you watch the action. Smiling and welcoming volunteers show you were to stand and where you can sit if you need to and at the given moment indicate silently it is time to don the headphones and start the show.
The White Whale is a free interpretation of Herman Melville’s 1851 novel Moby Dick, which was based on Melville’s own experience on a whaler. The story of Captain Ahab and his relentless pursuit of Moby-Dick, the great white sperm whale, is known of by a great deal more people than have ever read the doorstep sized novel with its extended descriptions of different species of whales and slightly homoerotic accounts of blubber squeezing. James Philips’ text updates the story to a near future when whale oil is a vital source of power, electronic and explosive harpoons are no longer used and men hunt whales the old fashioned way with small boats, sharp blades and brute strength.
Having set this up, the script then leaves it there, which is a relief. Nothing is worse in alternative reality pieces than endless exposition about how we got here and why things are different. They are, now move on.
A lone figure in a boat weaves his way from the far distance, an explosive spout of water marks a whale and the Pequod, the whaling ship herself, surges from below the dark water, breaking through the surface like a half remembered dream come fully back to mind (an impressive feat of engineering I assume from Pete Gunson). What is excellent about Alan Lane’s production, in the simple but beautifully effective design by David Farley, is that none of these things are pretending to be the actual things. We are not pretending that Leeds Dock is the wide ocean, that these water spouts are whales, that a smallish metal box is a whaling ship. But each of these things gives a sense and emotion of the thing it stands for. It seems an obvious point but one that is missed by quite a lot of theatre. The water, fire, smoke and explosions of White Whale are thrilling both for the things that they are, and for the things that they are being in the story.
We are introduced to the crew members, their voices speak intimately into our ears as our eyes take in the epic spectacle. Philips holds back on the introduction of Melville’s central character, and the most famous line ‘Call me Ishmael’. In a clever twist on the original, Ishmael has become a young radicalised man of British Pakistani origin, played with engaging and charismatic intensity by Nima Taleghani. Melville was intensely interested by the symbiotic relationship between the ‘self’ and the ‘other’, notably in ‘Bartleby the Scrivener’ and ‘Benito Cereno’. In White Whale it is the drinking, whoring Anglo Saxon crew, particularly the ‘painted savage’ Q (played with swagger and touching humanity by Christopher Brand) that is the ‘other’ to an abstemious Ishmael. I did miss something in re-imagining the originally black cabin boy, Pip, as European: The original Pequod was a multiracial microcosm of the world at the time and Pip’s fate, cast adrift in the ocean until he is sent mad, recalls the many thousands lost on the sea voyage from Africa to Europe. Angus Imrie’s performance as Pip, though, was not to be faulted; a heartbreaking figure of young energy and vulnerability.
Good concept is nothing without great execution, and The White Whale is truly a team effort. For me what held the whole thing together was Heather Fenoughty’s sobbing, soaring music, which underscored the action with emotion. Studded through the play were gorgeously sung shanties and hymns which pulled us into the play just as they pulled the characters together. The sound was, as ever in a Slung Low show, subtly and ingeniously designed by Matt Angove. Ric Mountjoy’s lighting captures both mood and action and managed to blend seamlessly with the civic lit surroundings.
Phillips’ script fillets Melville’s baggy narrative for the bare bones of an action adventure with metaphorical edge. And unlike Melville, it wears its poetry and allusion quite lightly: the water filled with whale blood is ‘incarnadine’, they sail on a Homeric ‘wine-dark’ sea. And mention also has to be made of Oliver Senton’s powerfully understated Ahab. If ever there was part made to chew the scenery it was that and he wisely kept it mostly low key, with moments of sudden, explosive violence. Like the others mentioned, Senton is a Slung Low regular. This is a team that has worked together a lot and it shows. Each part works together, responding and adding to the director’s vision.
Kudos as well for the enlightened and engaged people and policies at Leeds City Council, which made this production possible through a Leeds Inspired Commission. The White Whale is a story of obsession: the mad obsession of one man to take revenge on a whale, obsession with money, with power, with religious grace. It is also the story of one theatre company’s obsession with making the extraordinary happen for everyone in an unloved corner of Leeds.