Moby-Dick at the Arcola Theatre
With their adaptation of the 19th century novel Moby-Dick, simple8 are confronted with the perennial, and crucial, problem of how to present the sea on stage. Gone are the days of flapping a blue curtain and exhaling loudly. For simple8, the blue curtain is replaced by, well, nothing. It is through their able cast of men alone that they lead the audience utterly believably into the world of a whaling ship.
Simple8 create a kind of “poor theatre” – a theatrical process whereby they use found materials and a very small budget to put on large scale plays. The cast create scenes out of nothing, evoking the busyness of life on a huge whaling boat, the terrible calm of the open sea and the drunken camaraderie of a seaside pub using only their bodies and bits of wood. There is nothing superfluous: every prop and every cast member has a purpose. Leroy Osei-Bonsu as Queequeg, the monosyllabic cannibal who befriends Ishmael, and Nicholas Bishop as the hesitant but loyal first mate Starbuck are stand-out performances in a sea of talent. It’s very tightly rehearsed, so natural and comfortable are the performers, they could have been performing this play all their lives and they border on overconfidence.
The sheer transportative effect of the production is huge. You are beckoned into the dim hold of the ship, listening to the crew talk and sing sea shanties over the lull of the waves until it feels like the small rustic auditorium of the Arcola is pitched out on the open sea. Sargon Yelda as the famous protagonist Ishmael acts as the bridge between audience and story, fulfilling the roles of narrator and protagonist. It is through his beautifully rendered descriptions that the audience understands the jargon-heavy script and the lifestyle of whaling.
Director Sebastian Armesto has somehow distilled Melville’s enormous, exhaustingly descriptive and somewhat heavy-handed novel into two hours of thrilling theatricality. How do you portray the terrifying immensity of the whale Moby-Dick on stage? Simple8 know how – with four sticks of wood. How do you – and this was particularly striking – imitate the gut-shuddering thwang of a harpoon piercing a whale’s side? By pulling back sharply on a string attached to a tankard that judders with a crash against a wall. It’s so dazzlingly simple. It’s believable, it’s impressive, and my god, it’s clever.
Photo: Idil Sukan
Moby-Dick is at the Arcola Theatre until 4th May 2013. For further information or to book visit the theatre’s website here.
Listen to a performance of Greenland Whale Fisheries from Moby Dick here: