A summer of performances on the SS Great Britain that has included Shakespeare, steampunk and circus acts comes to a spectacular conclusion in late August with a promenade staging of Herman Melville’s sea-going classic Moby Dick.
Produced by Bristol-based theatre company Darkstuff Productions in association with Tobacco Factory Theatres, this Moby Dick promises to be a thrilling “immersive journey in pursuit of the legendary white whale.”
The show is a revival of Darkstuff’s 2012 production at the erstwhile Bierkeller Theatre, re-imagining Melville’s epic story of the young narrator Ishmael’s journey aboard the whaling boat Pequod. The diverse crew set sail from the New England coast, driven on by captain Ahab’s monomaniacal and self-destructive desire to hunt down Moby Dick, the sperm whale that once bit off his leg at the knee. Swept along on Ahab’s crazed quest for revenge across the world’s oceans, the crew must pull together to survive.
Simon Williams and Phil John founded Darkstuff over a decade ago, and specialise in creating shows away from conventional theatre spaces. In Brunel’s iron steamer they’ve found a perfect match for the piece – and a ship with a history almost as turbulent as the Pequod.
The SS Great Britain – the largest vessel of her day – plied the transatlantic service between Bristol and New York, and later carried thousands of migrants to Australia. On retirement, she mouldered beneath the waves off the Falkland Islands before being towed back to her birthplace in Bristol and restored to her former glory as officially the city’s most popular tourist attraction on the redeveloped docks.
Sitting outside the visitor cafe, Alison Farina, the show’s director, says how staging the play on Brunel’s world famous ship offers an exciting new way to experience the piece.
“I think the atmosphere will be very different, because we can be out in the open air for the chase and for the hunt. And then you can be in these really closed, claustrophobic spaces for the other, more intimate scenes. It certainly gives more scope for atmosphere when you’re on a ship and you can see the water.”
An American expat, Alison has been active on the Bristol and Bath theatre scenes for many years. In 2010 she formed Butterfly Psyche Theatre Company, and she has also been involved in site-specific productions such as 2017’s Orpheus and Eurydice, performed at the vaults beneath the Suspension Bridge. She has known Phil and Simon since making contact after their original 2012 Moby Dick.
Melville’s tale has a special place in Alison’s heart because she went to art school in New Bedford, the former whaling port on the Massachusetts coast where the novel begins, and stayed on to live there for several years before moving to the UK. When Darkstuff sought her advice on the Arts Council England funding application for their new production, it seemed like the stars were aligning.
“That’s how I found out about the project,” Alison laughes, the excitement still fresh on her face. “And I was like, ‘Oh, it’s Moby Dick! OK, that’s interesting’. At the time I was actually in America and I said, ‘Have you got a director earmarked, anybody involved yet…?’ And they said no, not yet. And I said, ‘Oh, because I’d be interested!’”
After getting the news that she had secured the director’s job, Alison made a detour to her old haunts on the New England coast before returning to the UK. Melville’s world is still “very tangible” in New Bedford, she says, showing me pictures on her phone of the port and the Seamen’s Bethel, a sailor’s chapel immortalised in the novel.
“The fabric of Bristol is very similar to New Bedford in the way that the proximity to the sea becomes the identity of the city.”
Both port towns have been shaped by the multi-ethnic diversity of the people moving through them, and both have a residual spirit of openness and creativity. But both, too, have a history steeped in brutality and exploitation: the suffering of numberless forgotten people – not to mention animals – is embedded in the stone of each town’s handsome merchant houses.
The two towns are also connected by slavery. Alison talks about the Underground Railroad, the network of secret routes and safe houses that enabled fugitive slaves to travel from the southern States to the Abolitionist north. Hundreds of escapees ended up in New Bedford – and many joined whaling expeditions.
Bristol’s own visionary sea-disaster story, Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner – first published by Joseph Cottle at his bookshop in the Old City – is referred to directly in Moby Dick, and was clearly an influence. And when Coleridge walked to the lectures he delivered in 1795 attacking the slave trade, he would have seen ships in Bristol harbour not dissimilar to those described by Melville.
For a brief time earlier in the 18th century there were actually whaling voyages to Greenland that set off down the Avon. The life-size wicker whale sculpture that can now be seen beside the Portway (created to mark Bristol’s status as European Green Capital in 2015) are right next to where slaughtered whales were brought back to the dock at Sea Mills.
But despite this deep maritime heritage, in its darkness and its light, we no longer have much direct contact with the world’s oceans. Today we’re more likely to glance down at them fleetingly from an aeroplane.
The link that remains, Alison suggests – possibly explaining the enduring fascination of stories like Moby Dick – lies in something deeper, rooted in the primordial mystery of the sea and our evolutionary origins.
“We’re really very connected to the water and, as human beings, stories about the water have something archetypal about them that we’re really, really drawn to,” adds Alison.
“And in the story of Moby Dick you’ve got this leviathan monster – but who’s really the monster? Is it the monster or is it man? I think that, in Moby Dick, it’s very clear that it’s man that’s the monster.”
Alison says that the characters will have local accents, and it is clearly a combination of the local and the universal resonances of the story that will form the core of this necessarily compacted dramatic version.
Moby Dick is so rich in symbolic meaning it has something to say to everyone. Eco-fable? Meditation on fate? Critique of tyrannical power? Exploration of the search for meaning in an unknowable universe? Myriad interpretations are possible. Alison and her crew are ready to tell the story with all of Melville’s rambunctious energy, humour and surprising tenderness among the horrors of the fathomless deep.
“You see what you want to see,” Alison says. “What you need to see.”
Moby Dick is performed on the SS Great Britain from August 18-26 2019.