Sebastian Armesto’s interpretation may cast aside a little of the original text’s allegorical clout, but as members of the ensemble pull together to engineer percussive sounds of the sea alongside shanties and concertina ditties, the production dives into a world of elaborate, engaging fiction. With catchy songs harnessing the novel’s deliberately implausible fantasy of adventure, we imagine that another raconteur – that is, writer, director and all-round creative superhero Sebastian Armesto – has done as much research as the novel’s dubious narrator, if not with the actuality of the whaling industry, then at least with the romance associated with a life of seabound adventure.
Armesto and Simon Allison’s set design is clever, but the real visual joy of this production comes from how the set is operated. Maybe “fluidity” would sound too much like a pun here, so I’ll say there is a certain liberated ingenuity to how the ensemble portray not just the sounds and actions of their characters, but also furnish the external worlds of this story. Using “found” objects, the ensemble builds a ship; by pulling at white cloth to fill their boat’s sails with violence and foreboding, the team personifies this floating home by rendering it puppet-like and active.
As practitioners of “poor” theatre, the members of simple8 are inventive enough to allow their homespun thriftiness to enrich this Moby Dick. With an organic, folksy quality that freshly illuminates the power of the Western oral tradition, the ensemble thrills as it paints vivid landscapes using symbol and sound. Two short sticks held between a couple of actors are enough to divide the raucous world of a port-side tavern from the sober observers outside. Sound is evocatively employed to similar ends, as a couple of folk musicians slowly take their ballads deep into the labyrinthine world of backstage, their accordion chords fading as Ismael picks up his book and prepares to meet either a night of isolation, or the threatening harpooner who will be sharing his boarding-house room.
Sailors, forget your anchor bend, bowline, cleat hitch and marl. As repetitive task such as scrubbing the deck or rowing a boat become percussive and the crew’s fears are negotiated through song, the intertwined relationship between sound and ensemble here will outlast any rope knot. A few stronger characters are occasionally thrust forward from the ensemble’s waves, but as the pub landlord becomes the captain and Elijah becomes Flask, the piece stays dynamic and playful, while still finding time to linger over the more tedious aspects of a life spent on a ship, through generous, testing pauses.
With or without its italics, Moby Dick certainly carries at least 15 inches of blubber. Thankfully, in this full-blooded adaptation, the literary heavyweight is stripped back and, through the artful application of ‘poor theatre’, simple8 poetically illuminates the thundering, spirited romance of life at sea.