In the week that Extinction Rebellion protests kicked off across the globe, and a lost whale tragically died after being struck by a ship in the Thames, So It Goes’ modern, multimedia production of Herman Melville’s Moby Dick is both intentionally and accidentally topical. The story of Captain Ahab and his obsessive quest to find the monstrous white whale that took his leg comes vividly to life at the hands of a five-strong cast, strongly supported by the inventive use of video, light and sound effects. Oh, and not forgetting Alex Chard’s original sea shanties about the various perils and pitfalls of 21st century life.
Douglas Baker’s significantly abridged adaptation of the 500-page novel follows the hunt for Moby Dick as Ishmael (Ben Howarth), a comically naive young man with a hankering to go to sea, sets out with new acquaintance Queequeg (Stephen Erhirhi) on board the whaling vessel Pequod. Shrugging off the warnings of chief mate Starbuck (Lucianne Regan) that his search will end badly for them all, Captain Ahab (Charlie Tantam) insists on pursuing his prey to the ends of the earth, with predictably disastrous results.
The play takes as its focus a line from the novel, which rings as depressingly true now as it did in 1851: “man takes this whole universe for a vast practical joke”. Looking back on his experience aboard the Pequod, an older, wiser and far more cynical Ishmael (Rob Peacock) draws parallels between the self-destructive whale hunt and the many ways in which our planet continues to pay the price for humanity’s greed and thoughtlessness.
It’s hard to imagine how both a ship and a whale could realistically fit inside any theatre, and particularly one as small as the Brockley Jack – but this production achieves both with surprising success. The use of video projection is inspired and works extremely well, in particular during the surprisingly entertaining rowing boat sequence set to the immortal soundtrack of Europe’s The Final Countdown (though arguably this loses a little of its appeal after the third outing). Ahab’s dramatic struggle with Moby Dick is captured in a whirl of light, colour and movement, building to a haunting final scene that brings fact and fiction, and past and present, crashing together.
The multimedia aspect of the show means that the cast have to interact not only with each other but also with whatever’s happening on the screen. This they do with great flair and conviction, dodging ocean spray, holding intense consultations with the captains of other nearby vessels, and – most memorably – scaling the suspended corpse of a huge sperm whale. Though we’re always aware we’re looking at images, they’re incorporated so well into the live action of the play that they never feel out of place.
Don’t be put off by the daunting length of Wikipedia’s plot synopsis (yes, I looked it up); this enjoyable production is a short, sharp adaptation of Melville’s story, with a powerful and very relevant message lying in wait at the climax. It’s by turns dramatic and funny and heartbreakingly sad, and at this particular moment in our political and ecological history, it’s telling a story we all need to be listening to.
Moby Dick is at the Brockley Jack Theatre until 26th October.