Ishmael, Ahab, Pequod, Starbuck, melancholy references to Nantucket. These strange yet familiar names are brilliantly evocative of the world’s most famous whaling expedition, skilfully recreated on the Dalston stage with recycled materials and raucous sea-shanties.
Continuing their successful season at the Arcola Theatre after an acclaimed production of The Cabinet of Dr Caligari, theatre company simple8 take on the ambitious task of staging Herman Melville’s 1851 behemoth of a novel.
Schoolmaster and wandering sailor Ishmael is in search of adventures, and ignoring the warnings of the local population, embarks on a whaling ship with his tattooed ‘lapsed cannibal’ friend Queequeg.
On board, it’s all rowdy drunken sailor’s ditties and genial laddish repartee, but it soon becomes apparent that the captain of the ship, the infamous Ahab, is willing to risk everything in his pursuit of the white whale who took his leg.
The rambunctious singing is replaced in the second half by more existential concerns. It’s partly man against nature, but mainly it’s man battling man’s own nature. Ishmael is driven by a mix of ennui and curiosity, honest Starbuck by a wish to see his family again, and their fellow sailors by the lure of doubloons and glory.
Ahab, played in full terrifying Day-Lewis mode by RADA-trained Joseph Kloska, is pushed by something altogether higher and all-consuming.
The set is delightfully immersive, with sound and light enveloping the audience from all sides, and the actors’ physical performances create a realistic ship in the viewers’ minds. While the ending sequence felt slightly abrupt, the poignant final shanty is one of the highlights of the night.
Overall, simple8 get the tone just right: this is a classically crafted and performance-driven piece of work, all the while retaining Melville’s ironic humour to provide a thought-provoking and enjoyable experience.
Until 4 May
Arcola Theatre, Ashwin Street E8 3DL