Living Structures with Teatro Español & Falmouth University’s Academy of Music and Theatre Arts
Hackney Downs Studios
Offered as “an homage to Melville’s Moby Dick”, this is an ambitious blend of some of Melville’s text, music, choreography and circus skills on a grand scale that sets out to create an interactive environment in which the audience becomes the crew of Captain Ahab’s whaling ship.
It kits out the audience in white plastic equivalents of oilskins and then, in the hangar-like performance space, presents them with a huge ramp of projected sea surface stretched between scaffold gantries that line the walls.
From out of the darkness, there comes a sound like a fog-horn and a wailing and gradually figures become discernable draped in black with what look like inverted newspapers on their heads. The wailing becomes more musical and occasional words are distinguishable, sweetheart among them, but nothing comprehensible.
It was not their sad song but a note in the company’s press release that identified them as the widows of drowned mariners, those who had accompanied crazed Captain Ahab on his revenge-driven quest to hunt down the Great White Whale that had taken his leg.
As they sing, a man appears from the depths of the waters, naked and swimming towards the audience. It is Dougal Ferguson as Melville’s narrator, who begins to address us in words from the novel’s first chapter of Melville’s great novel before identifying himself with the books famous opener: “Call me Ishmael”.
The delivery is literary, not naturalistic, and, when he struggles into trousers conveniently waiting, he doesn’t continue his story. The sea disappears and the audience moves into the space where it was as the action continues on the gantries and among them.
There is no sign of Captain Ahab or any of the colourful individuals that made up the crew of the Pequod. The performance now dispenses with telling the story of Ahab’s hunt for his nemesis for, though there is text, it is bellowed through loud hailers as microphones held up close to the mouth.
It seems deliberately made to be incomprehensible, becoming just one more part of an exciting musical soundscape that draws on an amplified fiddle and bouncing medicine balls as well as singers.
Wooden poles are bent into shapes that at first could be the hull of the whale ship or the skeleton of the whales being hunted. There is hauling on ropes as cloths are lowered and raised as a suggestion of sails, or later to suggest submersion, there is acrobatic lisse work to suggest those climbing up to the crow's nest or working on rigging and perhaps later to suggest being caught up on a gale.
There is a sequence to represent the work on the whale ship, stringing up carcases, boiling up blubber, processes on which instruction appears to be being given. Tots of what cold be rum are dispensed to some audience mariners, they get a scattering of spray as huge medicine balls are perhaps representing the pounding of waves and there are balletic routines with what could be harpoons but the effect is of artistic abstractions.
This show demonstrates great involvement among the performers but fails to really involve the audience, although such involvement is surely its intention.
The Great Whale itself does makes an appearance, getting larger and larger, sweeping everyone out of its way and, in ritualised form, the waters rise over everyone, only Ishmael escaping above them, but all this effort has almost no emotional impact or, it seems, content.
It is a succession of contrived effects, some of which work and some don’t and, though there are things to admire, it fails to create any real immersion or achieve any clarity of communication.
Reviewer: Howard Loxton