September 01, 1995

Very Like a Whale

Moby Dick
Adaptation by Nigel Triffitt

State Theatre

Reviewed by Murray Bramwell

This production first surfaced at the Melbourne Festival in 1990 and now State has refitted it for its current season. Nigel Triffitt has always been full of bright ideas and this adaptation of Moby Dick is among his best. Melville’s sprawling novel, part metaphysics, part ripping yarn, has ample theatrical potential and time has only added to its curiosity and appeal.

The account of Captain Ahab’s pursuit of his own white shadow is part of modern myth but Moby Dick also chronicles (like Heathcote Williams’ recentWhale Nation) the extent to which the whale was the engine of early capitalism. The by-products of this leviathan lit the lamps and oiled the wheels of industry. Of course, nowadays the very idea of whale products- other than the occasional ambient humpback CD – causes us revulsion. These extraordinary mammals are strictly for watching and steering safely back into deeper waters.

Nigel Triffitt’s version keeps close to the bones of the story – captain meets whale, captain loses whale (and leg), captain gets whale again, whale gets captain (permanent, like). We also have Ishmael calling, and Stubb, and the boy Pip. And we get a good look at Queequeg but he doesn’t say much. It is Ahab who has most of the lines – long, ululating cadences about the wine dark sea and how, despite the finer feelings of Mr Ishmael, the crew of the Pequod is there solely to help their flinty cap’n kick some serious whale.

The complexities of Ahab’s death trip can only be nudged at in ninety minutes and Melville’s orotund prose is not always easy to follow- especially with so much else going on. Designer Triffitt has created a splendid contraption – a precision-built cantilevered mast and rigging which, set at about forty five degrees, spins on a polished aluminium turntable. More Porsche than Pequod, the prow suggests a Victorian whaler while the stern is like a stylised harpoon with a mobile chair for Ahab to go craning above the action to survey the choppy depths. It is a marvellous construction, lit from all points of the compass by David Murray’s powerful spots. And, as it transforms from ship of fools, to factory boat, to a whale itself, it all but steals the show.

Going all the way back to ADT’s Wildstars, Nigel Triffitt has had a keen ear for soundtrack and this production is drenched in music and electronics. The haunting chords of Arvo Part attend and intensify Ahab’s entrance and throughout the production we hear clips of everything from the Rhythm Devils and Ryuchi Sakamoto to the rheumy bombast of Jean-Michael Jarre and Vangelis and the now familiar sound of actual whale croons.

Amongst all this the actors have the difficult task of presenting swags of text – monologues, description, sermons, tirades- which test both performer’s voice and audience ears. As Ishmael, Grant Piro is lucid and listenable but like his fellow actors he is largely overwhelmed by decor. Winston Appleyard as Yojo and Andrew Hansen as Daggao work industriously with visual effects rearranging the endlessly various gizmos on the Pequod as well as handling a large death spectre, a white spooky Jim Henson-like critter with red dot eyes. As Queequeg, George Hill is more pectoral than literal but Nicola Tudini, notable for his convincing New York Irish accent, brings good definition to Stubb.

Much rests on Richard Piper as Ahab. An able actor, he is, this time, unsuited to the task. His Ahab is a cross between Captain Hook and Jimmy Barnes. Instead of the craggy yankee puritan, Ahab is all Shakespearean flourish, Peter O’Toole rather than Gregory Peck. Melville’s meandering prose needs the inflections of the Massachusetts dialect -something both Piro and Piper avoided at their peril.

Piper’s is a strong performance, affecting when he gives his benediction to Pip (nicely underplayed by Clint Shah) and tragic in his mad courage. Nevertheless it is effort misplaced. Nigel Triffitt has brought such imagination and flair to the production that some of the directorial choices are especially maddening. For instance when Ahab meets his Moby in a spectacular collision between the disintegrating boat and a splendidly sculptural chrome and white fishtail, this is classic man-meets-nemesis. But it is enough that Ahab is impaled by his own hubris. We don’t need the final cruciform gesture- arms thrown back, eyes to an empty heaven. When he does that all of Triffit’s eyecatching work founders in needless pretension and such invention deserves better.

The Adelaide Review, No.143, September, 1995, p.28-9.

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