A recent theatre piece inspired by Moby Dick had a set on which the actors performed under a hanging garden of light bulbs. This version is performed almost entirely in darkness. But not a great deal of light is shed on the subject.
A history of Nantucket records a 17th-century worthy pointing at the ocean, where whales could be seen sporting, and saying: "There is a green pasture where our children's grandchildren will go for bread." But by Melville's day the Atlantic had been stripped of whales, and the men of the Pequod had to make the dangerous voyage to the Pacific, a trip of two or three years.
The Watery Part of the World, created by the five actors of the Sound and Fury com- pany and their director, Mark Espiner, re-creates one such voyage, that of the Essex, which was capsized by an angry whale. Excerpts from historical documents and the novel, as well as some invented dialogue, are spoken by the men, who stride around and through the audience. Once in a while a light shines on one of them; otherwise the theatre is dark.
In a suggestion that what dooms the men is not only nature's rage but capitalist greed, a sailor tells the approving captain, "I've reduced the food rations to make room in the hold for sperm-oil barrels." Spermaceti is "liquid gold." Though no sympathy is ever expressed for the devil of the deep, we cannot help feeling that his killers get what they deserve, slaughtering this magnificent creature so he can be converted into candles and corsets. The whale's revenge is complete when the men, drifting 3,000 miles from land, with less than one biscuit a day, draw lots for who shall die and who shall kill.
The very idea of reducing a tale this epic - not only in its action but in its philosophy - to the dimensions of low-budget theatre is, of course, inherently absurd, and it's a tribute to the production that at no time was I tempted to giggle. If the lights were on, however, it might have been quite another story, but the darkness, while helping the mood, is itself one of the problems with the piece.
The play also suffers from its brevity (just over an hour) and lack of characterisation. We don't hear enough from or about individual sailors to become involved with them, and, while the harrowing lifeboat scene does arouse our feelings for all the men, it is over too soon. After an executioner's shot is fired, there are shouts and a lot of ominous lapping noises, then nothing until a man who has survived says to his questioners: "I can tell you no more. My head is on fire with the recollection." Despite the immense physical and poetic reach of the subject, the evening amounts only to a self-contradiction, Moby Dick lite.
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