Whales like the dark. They navigate the ocean at depth, where little light penetrates, but where sound, including their own "song", travels great distances. Correspondingly, the whale's eyes, situated on either side of the head, leave its vision with "a profound darkness in the middle".
That last phrase, delivered by the one of the production's disembodied voices, would serve well as a subtitle for Sound & Fury's reconfiguring of Moby Dick. The Watery Part of the World doesn't so much adapt Herman Melville's novel and other early 19th-century whaling accounts, as submerge them.
The entire performance takes place in the pitch dark (only those recounting the voyage on land have the benefit of a dim light shone briefly upon their faces at the beginning and end of this hour-long voyage). The audience sits in two banks of seats, one facing the other, while five performers pad around between. And they do so with some stealth - one of the pleasures of the evening is never knowing from quite where the next voice is going to wail or whisper. (If you want a clue as to how they manage to choreograph themselves in the dark, look above you before the performance begins.) It is easy to see (or rather, not see) where two years of technical development have gone since the company first presented a scratch performance of this piece here; this followed another contribution to an exploratory 1998 season at the BAC, In the Dark.
The Watery Part of the World's narrative loosely follows the ill-fated whaling voyage of the Essex, which left Nantucket in 1820. A few faces turn up from Moby Dick - the mate Stubb, ship's owner Peleg and, of course, an apparently murderous sperm whale. Melville's novel turns from jaunty high-seas adventure to whale-dissection manual to the ecstasy of Ahab's self-destruction in the final chapters. Director Mark Espiner opts for the apocalyptic tone of the latter parts of Moby Dick, ditching Melville's wit and his pungent sense of character. The crew of the Essex is reduced to archetypes: the optimistic "green hands", the surly mate, the befuddled captain. But this is not Melville'sPequod, so the comparison shouldn't be laboured. And the production makes good use of what it does borrow from Melville - his fondness for a juicy mystical paradox: his oceans were both the bountiful repository of the most valuable oil on earth, spermacetti, and a symbol of man's existential dread, "a profound darkness in the middle". The evening's best moment, therefore, comes when the ship's boy, Pip, falls overboard in pursuit of a whale and thinks he has been left behind by the Essex. His fragile intellect disintegrates and the immensity of the oceans "drown the infinite in his soul". Pip's thin voice, and your own thoughts, are swamped by Gareth Fry's epic sound design, and as various shapes and textures swim across your retina in the dark, you can't help but feel a shiver of Pip's terrors.
The action moves on to the crew's desperate journey home after the fateful encounter with whale. But these passages, like the early, awkward scenes exposition, are too literal, prompting our imagination to join the aural dots a little obviously. Rather, it's in the scene of Pip's foundering and the two or three others like it, that the production edges towards a weird aural sublimity. What you might call a whale's-eye view of the world.
'The Watery Part of the World': Battersea Arts Centre, London SW11 (020 7223 2223), to 12 July
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