April 24, 2013
by Zeljka Marosevic
Recently, we brought you a report on the BBC’s forthcoming new drama, The Whale, which will centre around the tragedy of the Essex whaleship, the historical basis for Moby-Dick. Now, we bring you Moby-Dick: live. A new theatrical production of Herman Melville’s masterpiece is currently showing at the Arcola Theatre in Hackney, London. It’s been adapted and directed by Sebastian Armesto for the simple8 theatre company and confronts the impossible: how to re-create the sheer enormity and oceanic vastness of Ishmael’s experience in a converted paint factory in East London?
Armesto has found an ingenious way around this. As the play develops, the Pequod is literally built around the audience by the cast members, bringing the audience wholly into the action and allowing them to witness and empathise with the sailors’ futile work as they construct a boat that will eventually be so savagely destroyed. The Independent’s Paul Taylor describes the construction in his review of the play:
‘One hesitates to say, in this context, that Armesto has filleted the book well but that’s just what he has done. In DIY poor theatre fashion, the male ensemble build the ship from bits of wood and with pieces of flotsam create the poetically evocative outline of a whale in the extraordinary scene of dissection.’
But the most thrilling aspect of the production has to be the sea shanties which are performed by the cast. These are original whaling shanties which date back to the period when Melville wrote his novel, and they recall the dancing and singing of Ishmael’s fellow sailors on board the Pequod. Rousing and buoyant, both merry and plaintive in turn, these historical songs recount the seamans’ narratives and capture the spirit of the mariners on the ships that decided their fates. Choice lines in the songs include, ‘Will your anchor hold in the storms of life, when the clouds unfold their wings of strife?’ (‘Will your Anchor Hold?’) and the knowing prescience of, ‘For I tell you sir the fish can think as well as you or me!’ (‘A Whaler’s Tale’).
Listen and sing along with sea shanties below.
Moby-Dick runs until May 4th at the Arcola Theatre.
Zeljka Marosevic is the former managing director of Melville House UK.