THEATRE / Another whale in the coffin: Rhoda Koenig on the RSC's production of Moby Dick at the Other Place, Stratford

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The Independent Culture
The Royal Shakespeare Company's second immense sea saga on a stage the size of a couple of dinghies, Moby Dick is as much of a muddle as last season's Odyssey was a dazzling success. Part of the problem is the nature of the source - whereas the Odyssey is an episodic mixture of poetry, humour, and derring- do, Moby Dick is a story of one man's magnificent, doomed attempt to meet and conquer his fate and is bound up with a treatise on the whale and whaling. An adaptor cannot, as with Homer's epic, change the tone and setting or consider that he has done well if most of the incidents get across; Melville's novel is fixed in the world of 19th-century New England, and if its queer mixture of practicality and mysticism is not clearly conveyed, the entire point of the voyage is lost.

Director Gerry Mulgrew doesn't seem to realise that there is something not quite right about creating a drama about a vindictive monomaniac through teamwork. 'Rod Wooden,' Mulgrew explains, 'has written a new version of Melville's novel, which has served as the initial inspiration for a physical and musical interpretation of the story.' The two of them have worked, together with the designer, composer and actors, 'as a creative, devising ensemble to fashion the final show'. It is not surprising that no strong mood or voice emerges from this approach, and that it includes many things that actors enjoy doing more than audiences enjoy watching.

Among these is a sequence that, for one terrible moment, takes one back to the Cameron Mackintosh musical Moby Dick set in a girl's school. Where Melville simply has a sailor wishing for a female dance partner, Wooden provides another sailor, in hair ribbon and skirt, bawling the children's song 'The Animal Fair' and doing high kicks to a banjo. Another is one in which several sailors, harpoons held high, stride this way and then that, shouting, 'Oo-wah]' and striking manly poses.

The singing and posing, allied with such half-hearted gestures toward eeriness as coffee-percolator music or low drumbeats under the portentous passages, indicate a slackness that is echoed in the lack of differentiation among the characters. 'Little Pip' is now as big and old as the other seamen. The politically correct Pequod does away not only with child labour but with the Polynesian Queequeg's fantastic green and purple tattoos and his pidgin English. No longer a pedlar of shrunken heads (there goes another symbol), this Queequeg announces that he can speak proper English and doesn't want to be patronised.

How far this Moby Dick sails from Melville's atmosphere of obsession and dread is personified in David Calder's Captain Ahab, roaming the deck with an ivory peg leg that, we are told, echoes his footstep like a coffin tap, and is represented by a white-stockinged shank in a white shoe that neither taps nor falters. Calder's lethargic performance as the monomaniac who combs the planet to repay the whale who crippled him suggests, instead, an actor modelling casual weekend wear for the attractive older executive, and puts one in grave doubt that he has ever speared anything more challenging than a cocktail anchovy.

Wooden's imagination, though, doesn't shrink before the task of personifying the title character. At the climax of the play, a rather anticlimactic Moby Dick appears - a black actor whose skin is streaked with white, dangling a small doll on a string to indicate the helplessness of Ahab and his crew.

At the Other Place to 25 Jan (0789-295623)

(Photograph omitted)