THEATRE / Warm-blooded, slow moving: Moby Dick

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
Why did you bother? This was what many critics asked when my stage version of Melville's Moby Dick opened at the RSC's Other Place in Stratford last autumn.

Like true theatre, the novel Moby Dick is not about something, it is something: it is not so much the story of Captain Ahab's search for the white whale as the experience of that search. And here lies the difficulty, for we have become so used to being told what art is about that when we are invited to experience something, we are at a loss.

A terrible neatness has been born, a neatness which would reduce theatre to staged journalism. We have become trapped into thinking that if we put as little as possible of life on to the stage, then we may stand a chance of getting it right. But of course there is no 'right' to get to, which is something that Melville supremely recognised when he tried to cram the whole of his life, and all his wildest dreams, on to the page. He was not interested in literal truth, but only in the truth as he saw it, a terrible poetic truth: that human hubris can bring forth savage monsters, which have the power to destroy us all.

Melville's novel is an epic poem, a Greek tragedy. It cannot be staged using conventional language. What evolved over weeks of rehearsal with director Gerry Mulgrew was a highly stylised, poetic form, which could be adapted to meet the constantly changing demands of the narrative: thus the story of the mysterious spirit-spout uses conventional iambic pentameters, while the final episode of the whale chase employs a much more broken rhythm, to allow for the swirling physical activity which Gerry's staging brings to the scene.

When we opened last autumn, the harpoons of the press came flying. Brave but foolhardy, ostentatious, flawed, uneven - these were some of the politer adjectives that were used. There were complaints that the play was not the novel. Most of the reviews seemed to consist of a checklist: you have got this right, but this, this and this are wrong. Neatness is all. The general consensus was that we had attempted the impossible, and had failed. We disagreed.

We felt that the production was still evolving and that our mistake had been to think we could achieve a polished, finished result in such a short period of time. And so we turned to work on it, encouraged by some warm audiences and by the total commitment of the actors. And again, we await the reviews.' RW