I caught the last night of the Arcola Theatre’s superb production of Moby Dick on Saturday and it was a cracker!
Herman Melville’s original tale of an intelligent, capricious white whale was first published in 1851, eight years before ‘On the Origin of the Species’. Thus, the majority of contemporary readers presumably shared the sentiments expressed by first-mate Starbuck in his exhortation to Captain Ahab to cease his obsession with Moby Dick because “[v]engeance on a dumb brute that simply smote you in blind instinct – to be enraged with a dumb thing, sir, that’s blasphemous!”.
Arcola’s weekend audience had the advantage of one hundred and fifty years of advances in evolutionary science since Darwin and Wallace first illuminated the story of life on Earth in 1859 (Bill Bailey’s wonderful ‘Jungle Hero‘ two-parter on the BBC this month has convinced me Charles D has to share joint honours with Alfred Wallace for this breakthrough).
And so I, at least, found myself empathising much more with the ‘Grizzly Manxman’, victim of the rest of the crew’s derision, but who demonstrates perception of the genetic closeness between humans and fish in advance of his age: ‘There’s a holiness to a whale. They breath air, they milk their young, they have a thumb, they’re like us, yet they swim and dive, they miake light and they can chip a ship with a single fling of the tail”, and he breaks into a shanty that proclaims “them fish can think as well as you or me”.*
Indeed, as a whole, Sebastian Armesto’s production of Moby Dick beautifully brings out humanity’s connection to the rest of nature and revels in Melville’s meticulous descriptions of whales and whaling. My favourite scene was where the narrator and school teacher / would-be adventurer, Ishmael, describes the antaomy of a sperm-whale – with the rest of the cast holding aloft various bits of driftwood to cleverly form its outline. There’s not space to reproduce the whole ‘lesson’, but here’s an edited flavour to whet your appetite for the play.
“The Sperm wale is, without doubt, the largest inhabitant of the globe; the most formidable of all the whales to encounter; the most majestic in aspect; and lastly, the most valuable in commerce.
“The whale is encased in a roll of blubber. This blubber is up to fifteen inches thick. The average Spermacetty will yield from its blubber perhapps one hundred gallons [of oil]. This oil is used to make candles and soaps. But the finest oil gleaned from a whale is found in his head.
“I say head, but what a head! Marvel, first at the size. His eyes and ears are nearly one third of his entire length from the front! Here is the eye, low down on the side. He gets on distinct picture from one side and a completely different one from the other so that all in front of him is blind. And you shall be hunting all day for the ear. It is a hole just here so wondorously minute that you could barely insert a quill into it.
“Isn’t it amazing that so vast a creature sees the world through so small an eye and hears the thunder through so tiny an ear? And he has no nose, only a spout – which is on top, not in front, making pretty much the whole of his head a dead wall in which there is no organ or tender part whatsoever.
“There is, however, the most delicate oil. We call it sperm. It acts as buoyancy and submergence device. It solidifies to help the whale sink and melts to let him rise for a puff of sweet air..
“But the best view of the Sperm whale is of the full front of his head. Men often declare the brow to be a mark of beauty and intelligence; I think of Elizabeth Rex, the Mona Lisa, Shakespeare. But in the Sperm whale this sublime aspect of the brow is so amplified that, from a full front view, it is impossible to see its entirety. Not one feature is revealed – no nose, no eyes, no ears, no face. You have to shift perpsetive and glimpse partialities to find the whole truth.”
Everything about the play is wonderful, from Joseph Kloska’s captivatingly intense portrayal of Captain Ahab, to the clever choreography that makes the storm scene so believable with the need for expensive sound effects and props, and through to the lovely nautical glossary in the programme that kept me happily learning over a nice pint of Greenwich Meantime in the lively Arcola bar afterwards.
Sadly, I caught the show’s last night and so there isn’t a chance for anyone else to enjoy it at the Arcola now. But Simple8 – the production company behind it – will be performing plenty of other wonderful plays in the coming months. And if simply a great entertainment isn’t enough of a reason to catch their work, they also have a claim to be a pioneering green theatre company, supported by Julie’s Bicycle and Arcola themselves.
* All quotes taken from the script to ‘Moby Dick’, adapted by Sebastian Armesto, Oberon Books, 2013