Theatre Mill’s production of Moby Dick is alive as soon as you walk into the Guildhall. My ticket was stamped on the door as I became part of the ‘crew’ and I followed the stewards who, dressed in thick jumpers and boots, asked for my ‘papers’. I was led to the quarterdeck to take my seat, and around me were ladders, ropes, and lanterns hanging from the rafters. Everything including the set was part of the performance, and as an adaptation of a book with such universal themes that spans the entire globe this sense of involvement between the audience and our surroundings was a wonderful addition.
The Guildhall isn’t a traditional theatre space, and despite Graham Kirk’s intricate set design this was able to provide a challenge for some of the actors. “You’ve no idea until an audience is in there, until the whole set’s in there, what’s going to happen,” says Zach Lee, who plays a multitude of roles including Rob, Starbuck, Peleg and Elijah, and was kind enough to chat to me before a performance. “It was only sort of twenty-four hours before we opened where we realised, hang on, there’s an acoustic issue in there.” Yet the setting is so important to the story of Moby Dick that without this design element the significance wouldn’t come across. “To me,” he continues, “that’s magical going in there – I think it’s amazing.”
But it wasn’t just the set that brought this to life – the actors seamlessly weaved in and out of various voices under Gareth Tudor Price’s wonderful direction, and they each took on more than one role. It sits well next to Melville’s novel considering the complexity of the narrative; one of the things widely explored in the text is the issue of whether Ishmael is a character or narrator, and whether his voice is constant or weaved in between Melville’s himself. The actors were able to shift their identities without the need for extravagant costume changes or set switches, meaning there was always something new to see them do in every scene. Lee noted how this bought a sense of theatricality to the production: “To me it’s more interesting to do it with no props. At the beginning of a play you set a tone – how’s this going to play, going to look? What are we telling you within the first five minutes? We’re talking to you directly, so you’ve got to be involved or have some sort of investment in it or else it just doesn’t work.” This production is unique in its decision to move the story from its original setting in Massachusetts to the ports of Hull. The use of accents gave the whole production a traditional Yorkshire feeling, yet still retaining the American sense of boyish adventure captured in the novel. As a story which touches on themes of good and evil, madness and sanity, and right and wrong, there doesn’t seem to be much that the setting could change about its messages. But Lee draws attention to the importance of universality in the setting. “It only changed the story in reflection that we’re doing the counter pointing of having the Hull trawlers. It’s a story of working class guys trawling – it’s the same here, it’s the same in Iceland, it’s the same strand of society.”
The one thing that struck me the most about this production was their intense focus on the idea of fate and the question of who controls it. It’s a major theme in the novel and I was particularly struck with the way the line “Ahab beware of Ahab” hauntingly lingered on stage long after it was said. The white make-up on the faces of each actor made them look strangely like ghosts, and heightened the sense that each character was tied to their fate by foreshadowing what is to come. Yet despite the ghostly undertones, I was kept enticed by the lively shifts between actors as characters and the movement of their bodies to mirror the sea and the motion of the boat. The music that ran through the production was a lovely addition. “I love playing music,” Lee confessed. “If we’d have had a bit more time we’d have had a bit more music. Playing in a venue like this – this was unique.”
Condensing such a huge, complex was always going to be a challenge, but Nick Lane and John Godber have proved that in can indeed be possible. Whilst still maintaining the adventure and liveliness, it is a story of a man who becomes his own downfall. Seeing the production in such a unique place with such a talented cast is an opportunity you shouldn’t miss.
Moby Dick is on at the Guildhall until 3rd November. Tickets can be purchased through York Theatre Royal.