Image: Theatre Mill Productions
Venue: The Guildhall, York
Performed by Theatre Mill at York’s Guildhall, the audience was welcomed in with the offer of “working as a cook on board ship Peaquod” while country music filled the space. Although the smell of burning incense and the choice of music initially seemed odd for a book set in the 1800s, the inclusive stage, with the centre having been turned into a bar for the audience, soon to be revealed as Hull’s Whaler’s Inn, worked well. The Guildhall created a theatre in the round which, as a set, produced immersive and pleasantly interactive staging, despite fewer than half of the seats being filled.
Disappointingly, once the play began, the round seating caused issues with the acoustics. In spite of the cast doing a good job of addressing all members of the audience, once they turned their backs to you, the vocals were muffled and it became a struggle to hear what was being said. With the additional story line of being set in the 50s, looking back on the tale of Moby Dick, this only added more confusion to the play, especially to those who were not familiar with the original novel.
A Yorkshireman himself, John Godber who, alongside Nick Lane and under the direction of Gareth Tudor Price, adapted the play. Understandably, he added the Yorkshire twist for the Yorkshire audience with Hull’s familiar historic association with sailing. But, being a fast paced tale (despite the lengthy book that it was adapted from) the addition of the Yorkshire pub struggled to add meaningful significance, giving the impression it was simply adding length, rather than substance, to the play.
Travelling off the coast of New England, Captain Ahab, played by David Barrass, had become maddeningly obsessed with catching the whale after it had severed his leg. However Barrass’s performance didn’t ooze madness. Although he’d grown into character, come the second half, the adaptation struggled to portray Ahab as the ominous character who intimidates and scares his crew. Instead, The Captain seemed psychologically scarred from his encounter with Moby Dick and gave a closeted performance. The extreme personalities that were present in the book, of Ahab and Queequeg, the master harpooner, didn’t come across in Theatre Mill’s production. The half hearted stamping of Ahab’s metal ‘fake leg’ meant that he wasn’t the unnerving frenzied captain that you desired him to be. Mr Stubb, in contrast, played by young Michelle Long, gave a vibrant and captivating performance, in between picking up the fiddle or accordion. The inclusion of musical instruments from Mr Stubb and the other shipmen illustrated the true versatility of the cast that added depth to the show.
Set in 50s Yorkshire, the cast spoke passionately of old whaling stories, before beginning the haunting tale of ‘Moby Dick’. The strong emphasis on the storyline is what regrettably let the play down; focussing primarily on the account of a sea captain who has gone mad with chasing a white whale. As a book, Moby Dick isn’t enjoyable because of the tale it tells, it’s enjoyable because it absorbs the reader into the culture of whaling, sailing the Atlantic Ocean, and the rifting personalities of the crew aboard Peaquod. When the cast did focus on the atmosphere; generating storms, choppy waters, and the depiction of the whale, simply by using the harpoons as pounding instruments with the addition of theatrical lighting, the play was captivating and successful.
Theatre Mill’s Moby Dick staged a enjoyable performance, with strong immersive moments, but unfortunately the bad acoustics let the night fall flat from the beginning.