The White Whale at Leeds Dock – theatre review
White Whale Finale

Pippa Day offers her verdict on Slung Low’s modern interpretation of Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, The White Whale, which is currently being staged at Leeds Dock.

[All photos: Sarah Zagni for Leeds Inspired]

White Whale Finale
[Oliver Senton as Captain Ahab in The White Whale]

With a seven-strong cast, The White Whale, which opened last night, takes Melville’s troubled crew to an inland city for a dangerous adventure acted out entirely on the water. The audience is provided with headphones, and can stand during the performance or wander around the edge of the canal to get a better view.

Moby Dick, the tale of seafarer Ishmael’s whaling experience and Captain Ahab’s hunt for the white whale, is electric on the water, David Farley’s ambitious set a marvel. Lifted from the depths at the start of the piece, the ship is accompanied in the water by little boats, used when the whales are close to harpoon the creature at a short distance.

The headphones can at first feel like a gimmick, but as each catch of breath and bold lyric can be heard alongside the whale song and Heather Fenoughty’s haunting score, the oceanic atmosphere is overwhelming. The headphones are also a fine choice for the singing, the harmonies expertly mixed, especially during cabin boy Pip’s (Angus Imrie) brave rendition of ‘Amazing Grace’ from the top of the set after falling into the water.

The White Whale Pip
[Angus Imrie as Pip, singing from the crow’s nest]

James Phillip’s script weaves modern horrors into Melville’s tale of monsters and men; fracking, religious extremism and 21st century war. The nautical adventure is transposed into a bleak future, where whales must once more be hunted for their oil to provide fuel. This return to man against beast incorporates modern technology well, with sonar used to track the whales and brightly coloured plasticky costumes for the whalers.

The play, despite it’s dark theme and setting, uses comedy well, the crew joking about wifi and tattoos, and making fun of the chief mate (Liam McKenna) for his name resembling the well-known coffee shop (despite Starbucks being named after the character). Director Alan Lane has made a wise choice splitting the dialogue between the characters, rather than relying on Ishmael’s (Nima Taleghani) viewpoint as in the book.  A new crew member, Alex (Liam Evans-Ford), a Vanity Fair reporter tagging along to experience whaling, is an unusual but clever addition. The American has the most affecting monologue of the piece, standing on the ship as the crew chase whales on the smaller boats.

Characters are well-adapted for the modern setting, first mate Stubb shows understanding of the men driven to catch whales rather than stay at home with their wives, and a rough and ready tattooed Q (Christopher Brand) takes the place of Melville’s ‘savage’ harpooner Queequeg, complete with metal plate implants. Some of the crew have previously fought as soldiers in Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria and the contrast of their ‘never leave a man behind’ stance compared to Ahab’s singular drive for the monster is effectively addressed.

Ishmael’s land-bound depression in Moby Dick is replaced here with the sea acting as escapism from his anger, though the character does feel like a cliché at times. It is his religion that drives him and it’s this he begins to question as Ahab acts as God on the ship. As the months at sea take their toll he begins to consider the differences of his own and other’s beliefs, whether political or spiritual.

The White Whale - Slung Low 2
[The cast chasing a whale]

The great leviathan of the story, as well as the other whales chased and captured by the seamen, is illustrated in The White Whale with water spouts (and cries of “there she blows!” from the cabin boy). The whales themselves, although the purpose of the voyage, are not focused upon as much as the crew dynamics, but their presence is highlighted poignantly during Alex’s monologue with the line: “We came upon this great beauty and we killed them”.

Standing for 80 minutes or perching on the floor can be uncomfortable, but once The White Whale has been seen on the water, it’s impossible to think of  any other inland city location working so well. Lane’s risky choice of staging a Moby Dick adaptation on water pays off, and the atmospheric performance brings shivers alongside the September night breeze.

The White Whale will be showing at Leeds Docks until September 14; more info.

Read our interview with the artistic director of Slung Low, Alan Lane.