Moby-Dick at the Arcola Theatre
Simple8’s succinct and encapsulating version of Melville’s epic transports you through the oceans of time, as well as from the Atlantic to the Pacific. Featuring a strong all-male ensemble, this production is original and raw. At the Arcola Theatre.
Ok. Hands up. I haven’t read Moby Dick. Sincere apologies to those who have sifted through the 600 pages, but I shall begin with a brief synopsis:
Loosely based on true events in the 1800s, Herman Melville’s Moby Dick (also known as “The Whale”) focuses on the maritime adventures of the world0-wandering Ishmael, Captain Ahab and the whaleship Pequod’s fleet of sailors. As the crew takes to the wild waters, Ishmael soon learns that Ahab has bigger fish to fry than just capturing any old whale. He wants to find “Moby Dick”: the monstrous sperm whale that destroyed a vessel and claimed one of his legs. Driven to the brink of obsession, Ahab is determined to seek revenge and commands the crew to “row, row, row” and chase the fan-tails (the way a whale flourishes her tail in the air before diving), promising the sailors a significant lay (“lay”; a word in the Moby-Dick glossary relating to a sailor profit share scheme… I’m not being crude, promise).
Written and directed by Sebastian Armesto, this succinct and encapsulating version of Melville’s epic transports you through the oceans of time, as well as from the Atlantic to the Pacific. I’m told the play highlights the key chapters of the novel and grinds down the action into a nice and simple linear structure, which one can easily follow. There is a nice mix of humour – for instance, the show opens with a shanty-esque version of Titanic‘s theme tune “My Heart Will Go On” – balanced with the sincerity of timeless themes. Fundamental and universal ideas are explored, such as the exploitative and obsessive nature of mankind and the limits of human power and knowledge. This tale explores the surface and depths of the ocean it sails upon, the humanity at its mercy, the power of nature and the threat of the unknown.
As one might expect from Simple8 and their impressive track record, this play features a strong ensemble. Renowned for creating work that is innovative and bold, the talented actor-musicians effortlessly incorporate live music, song and physical theatre to produce work that is truly original and raw. These guys are great story-tellers, and their work is highly visual, stimulating and engaging. The ensemble work is pretty close to seamless and the cast work together to create magic. Voice and dialect coach Richard Ryder also works in a happy union with Armesto and the artists, and the result is incredibly impressive; each voice and harmony blends into a blissful bombardment of sounds and shanties. In true Simple8 character the neutral set is simplistic yet stylistic. The cast literally build the set from scratch, and the planks of wood and sheets of linen magically transform into a ship-shape whaleship.
Little lanterns hang overhead and candles burn to provide extra light and atmosphere. Shadows are cast across the space and the dark hues and lucid shapes help build a sense of mounting tension. The lighting design is aesthetically pleasing, practical and realistically executed. This enforced minimalism forces these creatives to be really, really clever. Windows are created with wooden sticks and a whale is conjured up with the simple assembly of planks of wood. And it doesn’t look tacky or stagey, or like they’ve sat around in a rehearsal room debating what works… it looks effortless and real.
You’ll lose yourself in this show and you’ll believe everything you do and don’t see. The only downside is that the action is sometimes a little too slow and the silences are a little too stretched. No doubt this is a technique to boost dramatic tension, however whilst it occasionally works it does become a bit tiresome. There’s something very cosy and comfy about this show. Perhaps this is due to the candlelight, or the atmosphere, or the songs… But perhaps it’s because we know we’re in the safe hands of Simple8. These guys are the essence of professional and the show itself is entertaining. In fact, I’m pretty confident that you’ll have a (forgive me) whale of a time!