Moby Dick

Sebastian Armesto from the novel by Herman Melville
Simple8 in association with Royal & Derngate
The New Wolsey Theatre, Ipswich

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Moby Dick ensemble Credit: Simple8
Moby Dick ensemble Credit: Simple8

A classic novel about the sea and a giant whale is not easy to put effectively on stage—although many have tried. This revived production by theatre company Simple8 takes the material and weaves it into an ensemble piece using adaptable staging, live music and a storytelling narrative. It works, but maybe needs a bit more grit and innovation to really inject the energy and colour that this story deserves.

Herman Melville’s enduring novel has been adapted by writer Sebastian Armesto for the stage, and for this company using their ensemble remit.

However, there are obvious distinct characters in this story—notably Ishmael, the schoolteacher who joins the doomed expedition to experience life on the sea for himself, Queequeg, the harpooner who takes him under his wing, and Captain Ahab himself, whose obsession with the giant white whale to whom he lost his leg is an obsession that in the end destroys his ship and his crew.

But with no programme, I can only give you the names of the ensemble company: Mark Arends, Jonathan Charles, Hannah Emanuel, Syreeta Kumar, Hazel Monaghan, James Newton, William Pennington, Guy Rhys and Tom Swale.

The staging of scaffolding, ladders and boards effectively conjures up the deck of a ship. The company uses instruments to create sound effects of storms, ships' noises etc as well as play and sing shanties and sea hymns to link and break up the scenes as we follow Ishmael’s voyage on the Pequod with a nervous crew and a mad captain intent on seeking out and chasing down his nemesis, Moby Dick, whatever the cost.

Director Jesse Jones makes good use of the space, and there is a beautiful use of language throughout to paint a picture of life at sea on a whaler. It's an endearing production, but it comes across as very idealised.

It seems strange to us now in our relatively new awareness of conservation and the environment that the killing of huge amounts of these magnificant creatures was at one time a widespread and lucrative trade. But then whale oil was the primary method of lighting used in lamps and the production of candles, and lubricant for machinery and whale bone was used in everyday life to create a variety of products, very much like plastic is used today.

But you won’t find those facts in this production. And although very poetic, you do not really get a sense either of the grinding work that being a sailor on such a ship was. The actors look very clean and well fed, and there is no real sense of the danger of such a voyage, the backbreaking work or the deprivations the crew would have had to put up with.

And being a mixed company, some of the characters come across better than others. Captain Ahab is believably played, as is Ishmael and Queequeg. Some of the others I was less convinced about. But what was really lacking is a sense of danger or conflict. A notable absence in what is in effect a most dramatic story.

But, all in all, a pacy production that is interesting, poetic and at times absorbing. It is a pleasant production—but on the negative side, neither groundbreaking nor challenging. Opportunities missed I feel.

Reviewer: Suzanne Hawkes

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