Tuesday, August 14, 2018

Moby Dick

Photo by Marnya Rothe
Sport For Jove Theatre Co and Seymour Centre present, MOBY DICK, adapted by Orson Welles, from the novel by Herman Melville, in the Reginald Theatre, City Rd Chippendale. 9th August - 24th August.

MOBY DICK, adapted by Orson Welles, from the novel by Herman Melville.

When this project was announced, I was surprised and couldn't help wondering why would you do it? Orson Welles filmed himself performing scenes from the novel in a one man version; he presented for the stage, MOBY DICK - A REHEARSAL, in 1955; and prepared a film version that was left unfinished in 1971. (I cannot find the information that can tell me the actual origin of the text we are seeing at the Seymour Centre, this month.)

I have attempted the Melville novel many times but never completed it. I don't know many people who have actually read it - "A mighty messy book" is a quote from the program note. I know the story through the Hollywood version, written by John Huston and Ray Bradbury, Directed by Huston, starring Gregory Peck (1956), in which Orson Welles, incidentally, has a small role, Father Mapple. I have, vicariously, read literary appreciations of the novel of 1851 and have a sense of it, the breadth of the vision and thematic occupations of the author and the many genre styles, Melville engaged in. The novel is regarded as one of the Great American novels. One day, soon, I promise!

So, what intrigued me while watching this production by Adam Cook, for Sport For Jove, was the literary power and ethical debates suggested (if not fully engaged with) in this Wellesian text (though, knowing Welles, I should not be surprised at its erudition): The spirit of God and the Universe, the fear and power of Nature, Greed (capitalism) and the exploitation of nature, Race, Masculinity and the meaning of Whiteness, the disastrous disease of Obsession, of the need for Revenge and the consequent struggle between Good and Evil, the Young and the Old. The language is heightened, poetic and theatrical - the breadth of Shakespeare's thematics and contemplations in poetry, an inspiration for Melville - so, the scale of the text on the stage I found arresting and immensely stimulating. Of, course, the text at only 81 minutes, or so, is possibly, nay probably, a 'horrible' diminishment of the original. One day, soon, I will read the novel!

I can recommend this production for the experience of the text.

Adam Cook in his program notes tells us,
When Damien Ryan and I decided that MOBY DICK would be our next project for Sport For Jove, I knew I couldn't direct a production of the script as Orson Welles envisioned it. As a play written for an ensemble of a dozen white men and a token white woman playing a little black boy from Alabama. Nor did I have any interest in casting a dozen white men. The story that Herman Melville wrote describes a doomed whale ship called the Pequod crewed by sailors from every race and corner of the planet ...Our starting point was the cultures and national heritage that make up our cast.
And so, there is a racial, cultural representation in the casting - an example of the Australian "melting pot" of immigration policy that has given this country its diversity. As well, however, maybe, following the need to have gender parity represented as well in the casting - a contemporary political shifting - this production has engaged four women with their voices and feminine viewpoints to become part of the crew of the Pequod.

Crucially, there has been a cross-gender casting of the tattooed harpooner, Queeqeg - Wendy Mocke - as an islander Princess, so losing the homo-erotic tensions of the novel, between he and the narrator of the tale, Ishmael, that was infamously part of the novel's original controversy (Tom Royce-Hampton - who strips almost naked for us, in this production). Whilst, the young challenger of the Captain of the ship, Starbuck (buck not doe) is created by Francesca Savige, thereby losing the symbolic heightened tension between the idealistic and young whaler male with the madly obsessed older Captain of the Ship, Ahab (Danny Adcock), thereby dissolving a constant thematic of Melville's writing (famously, distilled in the characters of of Billy Budd and Claggart in Melville's last novel BILLLY BUDD); and Pip, the African slave cabin boy (Rachel Alexander) - in this production a South East Asian of no distinct sex. Too, Tashtago is played by Vaishnavi Suryaprakash. While all these actors give brave and committed performances the historic all male hot house environment of the world of the novel, the play, is, relatively, emasculated, and the dramatic impact of this story, its philosophic questioning, is diluted. Herman Melville's two great books, MOBY DICK and BILLY BUDD are symbolically made dangerously powerful within the all male world of the wooden keel of the nineteenth century ship.

As well, the company of young actors: Mark Barry, Badaidilaga Maftuh-Flynn, Bryden White-Tuohey (as well as Mr Royce-Hampton) have voices of no deep sonority (bass) - rather light weight sounds (baritone/tenor) in colour and effect, and since their is much poetic verse spoken as a company, the aural masculine power of the writing is, further, with the cross gender casting, much more diminished - Mr Adcock and Jonathan Mills, have no sonorous depths to contribute, either. For me, the only authentic sound of this heightened masculine world was that of the percussive ship bell - its clapper ringing-in the world of a nineteenth century male domain on the high seas in the quest of whale - in this incidence, the fatal meeting with the Great White Whale, Moby Dick.

The contribution of the Designer, Mark Thompson: Set, gleamingly atmospheric with its mixture of wood (ladders) and metal; Costume, a subtle blend of quasi-period and the modern; enhanced by the lighting of Gavan Swift, along with the company choreographic-movement to create the great whaling climax confrontation with Moby Dick, himself, by Nigel Poulton, is visually impressive, accompanied by propulsive live drumming (Tom Royce-Hampton - a member of Taikoz), and a Sound Design by Ryan Patrick Devlin.

In the central role of Ahab, Danny Adcock, in gravelly voice, is possessed with the mania of revenge, balancing the emotional angst with the philosophic debates of the tortured soul confronting the wilds of nature, with a consummate intellectual clarity.

To answer my question of why to do, to see this production: It is to hear the poetic erudition of this adaptation - (Reader's Digest in form, and vocally underpowered, though it may be) and the commitment of Mr Adcock.

N.B. It is once again my lamentable duty to point out that the writer, the adapter of this play, Orson Welles, has NO biography in the program - a very, very Sydney thing - to render the writer invisible - unknown.

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