Moby Dick – The changing face of the White Whale. (Theatre Review)

Moby Dick

Sport for Jove

Seymour Centre

9 – 25 August

You can grab your tickets here.

Images: Marnya Rothe

The beauty in Sport for Jove’s Moby Dick lies in a certain progression from Herman Melville, through Orson Welles and finally to arrive at Adam Cook directing on an Australian stage in 2018. While so many interesting interpretations exist, one of the most satisfying is watching a progression away from the labored biblical representations of Melville toward the liberating modern interpretation eschewing a legacy in the Christian scriptures.

As in The Book of Job, The Oedepus Cycle and Paradise Lost the question of undeserved suffering is essential to Melville’s Moby Dick. For Melville, the connection to Job is overt. Ishmael (Tom Royce-Hampton) frames Captain Ahab’s (Danny Adcock) hunt for The Whale in this fashion; “Here then, was this grey-headed, ungodly old man, chasing with curses a Job’s whale round the world.” Connection made to Satan via Melville’s description as a “grand, un-godly, god-like” evoke Milton’s descriptions of Satan. Captain Ahab is similar in dignity to God, but he is also not God because he is horribly human. Ahab is not an exceptional man. He is the personification of the evil and suffering of all humans. Unlike Milton’s Satan, Ahab does not universalize his suffering. He relishes it and turns it into an unachievable goal which results in the destruction of The Pequod and himself.  In the end it is the essential, and existential, rootlessness of the sailor that makes him uniquely vulnerable to ‘sea change’: he has none of the landmarks of home, family and kinship with which the landlocked soul navigates and builds identity. The surface of the sea is a Heideggerean ‘space’: marked out with ‘locations’ of story and history, a landscape upon which the rootless sailor can find roots. Ahab’s whale is Melville’s novel.

For Orson Welles, a fusion of Ahab and the actor/director/writer/producer called Orson Welles was the next natural interpretation of this Job infested Satan. Orson Welles transforms prose into poetry and makes the staging of this book his own personal white whale. Ahab’s suffering is portrayed by Melville as meaningless because he has not transgressed. Neither has Orson Welles, yet with the staging of Moby Dick he suffers. He does not suffer for sin, he suffers for a performance that can never be. Orson Welles put the whole of Moby Dick into verse at Duke of York’s Theatre, London, June 16 1955.  He directed, produced, designed both set and costume and played Ahab. As with life on the Pequod, it was a one man show by a power house personality driven to capture the fundamentally intangible. Evoking the poem, The Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner returns Moby Dick to its origins in Melville narrative, but also moves beyond Melville (and Melville’s Christianity) to Coleridge and his Romanticism, painting Ahab as a medieval character rather than the enemy of rationalism. For Orson Welles the stage is the sea and the actor’s performance, the sea change of Ahab. The deep of the sea is formless space utterly inimical to fragile human identity, but equally so is the stage.

Fast forward to Adam Cook and his Danny Adcock Ahab. Refusing Orson Welles, Adam Cook converts the source of change for Ahab from his journey/destiny/battle with god to his angry white man’s confrontation with those around him. Adam Cook’s white whale theatrical stage taunts and teases at Danny Adcock’s Ahab which is more Satan than Job. Unified, fluid and dynamic movement directed by Nigel Poulton coalesces the cast such that Pip (Rachel Alexander) Queeqeg (Wendy Mocke) and Starbuck (Francesca Savige) – all women – combine to tease the soul from the angry white Ahab – the modern thinkers own white whale. For Adam Cook diversity of race and gender are the essential components of Ahab’s engagement with his fate. The Whale moves distinctly from the ocean to the stage, from the locations of history to the landscape of perspective. For the audience, Ahab is the whale and theatre is the ocean where we meet and confront a future possible from a present caused by a disturbed past. Danny Adcock’s growling Ahab is more monster than man, grim and pointlessly fearless.

If Melville painted a Job-Ahab obsessed with the mercy of God and Welles an enormity-Ahab that consumes an ego, then Cook reveals an Ahab whose obsessions alienate him from those who would save and love him. On a Sydney stage, in these troubled times this American classic struggles to justify Ahab’s drive and existence, and one easily imagines Melville’s America as an Ahab searching for its elusive white whale of freedom and opportunity. Under Adam Cooks excellent direction it is difficult to “un-see” a flailing America in this Moby Dick, as it is in Melville’s and Orson Welles’. For this reason, this production surges ahead of expectation and teases the intellect far beyond what the original text is usually able to offer. Moby Dick is turned fully onto itself and we see in the theatrically absent whale the self-imposed isolation of Ahab. This is a superb production of the famous novel, fueled by a much-needed modernized touch that realizes a new perspective on the original work. Familiarise yourself with the novel beforehand if you don’t know it.