Billy Budd at Southwark Playhouse

It seems to be the year for Herman Melville revivals. First up, we had Moby Dick at the Arcola in Spring – and what a treat that was. Next in the limelight is Billy Budd. Written in the latter half of Melville’s life, the book wasn’t discovered until three decades after his death… and has probably remained in the shadow of the former masterpiece ever since. I mean, had you heard of Billy Budd? No? Good. Nor had I.

In secret/heart Theatre’s stage adaptation, we follow the lives of the crew aboard a British naval warship during the Napoleonic wars. Young and wide-eyed Billy Budd is forced to jump ship, as it were, from the Rights-of-Man to a Royal Navy vessel. Without so much as a grumble, Billy bids his friends farewell and hops aboard the war-of-man. 

London Theatre: Charlie Archer, Christopher Hammond, Jonathan Leinmuller, Iain Batchelor, Joel Gorf © Oliver King

After an awkward welcome, Billy soon wins the affections of his fellow testosterone-fuelled sailors; all of whom respect his innocence, charisma and charming nature. Even Claggart, the corrupt Master at Arms who, for the most part, revels in hatred, adores Billy. Although his affections are of a darker nature.

London Theatre: Charlie Archer, Gerrard McArthur © Jane Hobson

Claggart promises the handsome youngster a promotion in exchange for… well… yeah, you guessed it (these men have been at sea for a LONG time). Billy declines the offer, much to Claggart’s dismay, and when it becomes apparent that the Master at Arms isn’t going to get his sea-legs over, bitterness creeps in and Claggart develops a grudge against the poor, simple, stuttering boy… resulting in the innocent’s tragic downfall.

The play opens with a bloodcurdling scream, and the atmosphere plunges into the depths of the cruel sea almost immediately. The set, lighting and sound all work together to transport our imaginations to the late 18th century nautical world that Melville paints before us. As with Melville’s other texts, Billy Budd was also inspired by the author’s various real-life sea voyages, and the writing captures the essence of maritime life by blending poetry and prose and sea shanties. Harcombe’s production captures the tone and mood of the piece, that’s for sure.

Described as “a parable of good and evil, a meditation on justice and political governance, and a searching portrait of three extraordinary men”, this production certainly explores these aspects, but not in a way that is particularly gripping. The stage adaptation clumsily shifts from the natural to the poetic, to clunky, text-heavy extracts of the original. The flow of the play is as bumpy as the waves on which the tale sails upon and, therefore, it’s hard to follow, engage and immerse oneself in their world.

Acting-wise, the man of the hour is Charlie Archer as Billy Budd. I mean – he’s utterly adorable for one thing. For another; Archer’s performance is utterly captivating, and his characterisation is superb. It’s worth nothing that I also saw this actor in Harcombe’s The Illusion last summer (also at the Southwark Playhouse), and he has totally transformed for this role, to the extent that I barely recognised him – which is a testament to his talent and skill as an actor. A blank canvas if ever there was one.

The remaining cast are strong. The majority of the actors are amazing: very natural and able to connect emotionally, but a few members of the cast unfortunately ham it up a bit too much. For instance; the more “dramatic” members of the ensemble warble every syllable and each line seems premeditated and executed to impress those who celebrate vocal skill and trained diaphragms. Although each actor possesses the most refined dramatic “technique”, most of the action looks staged and you can tell they’re acting: a sign that the acting isn’t very good, in my book.

Overall, I wasn’t particularly absorbed by this production. Some scenes stand out as being rather exemplary – but others are pretty forgettable. Technically, the piece is very strong – the actors have great technique and the design is impressive. However, a little more attention could have been paid to the audience experience. Melville’s stories are about journeys, explorations and adventures – and as such, this stage adaptation should have, but failed to echo these qualities.

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