Billy Budd at the Southwark Playhouse is the third production from theatre company secret/heart. Adapted from a novel by Herman Melville, it tells the tale of Billy Budd, a bright, wide-eyed, simple sort of lad, and his trials and tribulations aboard a British man-of-war ship.
Set during the Napoleonic wars, the plight of Billy and his shipmates is both heart-warming and disturbing, opening up questions of justice and morality, kinship and eternity.
This young cast emulate the longings and struggles of crewmen during this era, successfully seeming older than their years, giving the piece a sense of timelessness.
Whilst there are strong performances from many, the one true hook of this production is Charlie Archer's portrayal of Billy Budd. Archer is a joy to watch, presenting a character whose innocence and naivety is a joy to behold.
Budd's nemesis, the Master of Arms, is a villainous fellow called Claggart, played with intensity by Gerrard McArthur. The poetic language that Claggart uses to express both his bilious hatred for his underlings, and his yearning for love and friendship as a result of his self-inflicted alienation, is admirably handled by McArthur, although at times his depiction of Claggart errs on the pantomime-esque. It is tempting to boo and hiss at McArthur whenever he appears, donned as he is in head-to-toe black, cane in hand; he is at times more caricatured than terrifying.
The small set is cleverly used to create a variety of spaces, with wooden slats, rope nets, and metal panels creating an on-board atmosphere. Director Seb Harcombe has made some unusual but highly effective choices, using sound, lighting and movement to depict the rolling rhythm of the sea. A production that both delights and shocks, the ending does not so much creep upon as slam into you; perhaps a bit more breathing space, with fewer shouty scenes towards the end, may have made the impact of this harrowing tale all the more moving.
Billy Budd is a show worth watching however, and for a multitude of reasons, not least for Charlie Archer's performance in the title role. This kind of talent is not to be missed.