Left – Wendy Mocke. Cover – Danny Adcock. Photos – Marnya Rothe
Herman Melville’s 1851 novel has fallen into the unenviable position of being an oft-adapted and perennially referenced masterwork of literature, yet one which has conversely taken on a reputation with more recent generations as being dull, overlong, or even what some would term “unreadable”. Indeed, many today might be more familiar with some of Moby Dick’s most famous lines via liberal quotations from a couple of Star Trek movies, rather than from even the many direct adaptations of the book itself.
Perhaps the best approach to this play is not weighing in on this phenomenon overly much, either by ascribing an atrophying literary appreciation to modern readers, nor opining on how shifting cultural tastes can inevitably affect the reception of an almost 170-year-old novel. Decrying either phenomenon may have its place, but that is the domain of a separate analysis. To begin with, this production’s playtext itself is over 60 years old, adapted by the legendary auteur of radio, stage, and screen, Orson Welles, famous for his vaulting ambition in creating many projects that would either go down in history as pinnacles of their respective artforms, or flounder utterly into incompletion.
Originally under the title Moby Dick – Rehearsed, the play was performed in modern dress with a somewhat Brechtian framework using minimal sets and props, in which Welles would emerge in character as himself to elicit a supposedly impromptu rehearsal from his begrudging cast. This production directed by Adam Cook pays some homage to that conceit, but tones down the metatheatricality while upping the production values. We still begin with the cast onstage preparing to begin their performance, yet this is no longer quite so overtly stated, nor is the sight of onstage action while the audience take their seats all that uncommon a technique these days.
As with Welles’ original, the play uses a great deal of “theatre of the mind” techniques and open theatricality, conveying the story through word and movement and leaving the conjuration of ships and whales to take place in the collective minds’ eye of the audience. However, unlike Welles’ actors relying on brooms for oars and sticks for telescopes, this production is not quite so minimalist, with a wood-plank and sheet-metal set that somewhat evokes both above and below deck on the Pequod, and realistic props of harpoons, maps and a sextant give the production texture beyond that required by total “black box” imagination. That said, the set and particularly costume design by Mark Thompson seems at times a little muddled between the aesthetics of striving for some measure of period authenticity, and the entirely uncostumed modern dress of the Welles production, with the actors here wearing an occasionally dissonant hodgepodge.
These are minor quibbles, however, as this production comes marvelously alive under Cook’s hand, with the input of movement director Nigel Poulton. What is created is an energetic, sweaty and frenetic staging that inventively utilises ladders and the elevated catwalks of the Reginald Theatre to create a multi-levelled experience that feels both expansive and claustrophobic, as the needs of each scene dictate.
For those in the aforementioned category, unfamiliar with even direct adaptations of Moby Dick let alone the book itself, this brisk 80 minute condensation of the narrative will serve well, and perhaps reveal a greater degree of culturally osmosed familiarity with the plot and characters than previously suspected. Even so, the play does have its slow moments, faithfully – if much more concisely – representing the novel’s extensive existential and spiritual ponderations, especially in an intense, racially-charged scene between Ahab and Pip that runs the gamut of many of the story’s philosophical concerns.
The cast is excellent, starring Danny Adcock as a particularly intense and terrifying Captain Ahab, his performance a striking study in almost bipolar extremes of tender avuncularity and frighteningly solipsistic single-mindedness. Complete with a faux-pegleg, something about his diminutive stature, shiny pate and blazing eyes make for an indelible interpretation of literature’s most enduring portrait of an unerringly determined pursuit of personal obsession. Watching Adock in the role, you actually start feeling worried for the White Whale.
The surrounding ensemble is also very strong, having cross-cast many of the characters to achieve near-parity of gender, with some parts such as Pip and Starbuck played by women seemingly still portraying male roles, yet with dialogue altered to indicate that Queequeg has indeed been explicity reframed as a female character. Neither approach is problematic, especially if one extrapolates Welles’ original notion that this is a more Brechtian presentation of a play, in which we are not to ever forget that the performers are actors on a stage. This production is to be commended for its diversity, however this seemingly hybridised handling of the diegesis of the characters’ genders potentially gives a similarly muddled sense of intentionality to that seen in the semi-modern costuming.
Although again, at the risk of a descent into nitpicking, none of this actually detracts from the very fine performances of this excellent cast, with particularly notable work from Rachel Alexander as the hyperactive Pip, Francesca Savige evincing soul-searching disquiet as Starbuck, Wendy Mocke brings an intense power in her portrayal of Queeqeg, and Tom Royce-Hampton brings his dulcet tones with a side-order of spiritual angst to the somewhat reduced role of Ishmael, the narrator of the novel and, to a lesser extent, the play.
Sport for Jove’s production of Moby Dick is at times a contemplative slow burn, but at others veritably leaps off the stage with a powerful and well-oiled stagecraft that weaves an engrossing story, one which grabs you both viscerally and intellectually. With terrific performances from an energetic and talented cast, this is a corker of a production with a climactic scene that will leave you breathless as the titular whale dives to the depths and threatens to take you all with it.
Sport for Jove Theatre Co/Seymour Centre presents
by Herman Melville, adapted by Orson Welles
Director Adam Cook
Venue: Reginald Theatre, Seymour Centre | N/A
Dates: 9 – 25 August 2018
Tickets: $45 – $36