“Call me Ishmael” is one of the most popular lines in American, perhaps even world, literature, which is taken from the classic Herman Melville novel Moby Dick.
With its epic scope, and slow-burning narrative (if one can even call it that), it could be argued that the book is rarely read from cover to cover by the masses anymore – often assuming a place on a ‘to do’ list that will never be attended to.
Using this as a starting point, theatre company Spymonkey present its own efforts of tackling Melville’s sprawling text, under the direction of Jos Houben and by using a cast of four. The result is a raucous event of absurd high jinks, melded together with ephemeral instances of camp spectacle and outrageous slapstick.
Lovers of the original novel (or those wishing to be acquainted with it) should steer clear of this work, as it becomes evident from the initial minutes on stage that the playmakers are more keen to parody the archaic narrative clichés, forming caricatures out of the story’s metaphorical language. For example, the characterisation of the fictional boat Rachel comes to life as a series of figures from a spermicidal mermaid to the chortling stereotype of a Scottish rough neck. Performed with gusto by Petra Massey, the portrayal pokes fun at the masculine overtones within the original text, without getting bogged down by the inherent political baggage.
Elsewhere, the troupe perpetuate this notion of foolhardy analysis with allusions to homosexuality (a homoerotic tryst between Ishmael and one of the harpooners), and by unpicking the artifice of the production design. A particularly hilarious gag, finds Toby Park playing a colossal god-like figure, only for his arms to fall off inappropriately, during his sermonizing.
The other two performers - Stephen Kreiss and Aitor Basauri - are also exceptional in their roles, bringing forth an ebullient energy to the stage. Basauri has a resemblance to the actor Bob Hoskins who, somewhat fittingly, starred in another sea-bound comedy, the 1991 film Hook, thus an adaption of J. M. Barrie’s Peter Pan story.
But where Spymonkey have failed is in managing to bring together the numerous strands into a coherent narrative. More often than not, the comedic gags would inexplicably toggle between innocent refrains to outright vulgarity, without any semblance. And despite a continuous stream of laughter from particular sections of the audience, a large proportion of those watching seemed to have been silently holding in their breath.