I have a confession to make - I have never read the whole of Moby Dick. I am of course aware of its mighty reputation as a leading, and perhaps slightly intimidating, example of The Great American Novel, of the narrator Ishmael and his tale into the heart of darkness of Captain Ahab and his relentless pursuit of the mighty, elusive whale, Moby Dick. It is perhaps this same reputation that has caused so many distinguished theatre and film-makers over the years, including John Huston, to attempt to adapt the novel to varying degrees of success.
The approach of the Simple 8 company is at once incredibly enterprising and ingenious. From the barest of boards, this small but brilliant ensemble are able to conjure entire worlds. The maritime theme of the evening is set with a larky, mischievous rendition of Celine Dion’s hit ‘My Heart will Go On’ from the film Titanic. It raises an eyebrow and could perhaps cause a slight alarm as to what kind of an evening you might have let yourselves in for - ‘What shall we do with the drunken sailor’ on the didgeridoo, anyone? However taken as a marker of the company’s completely unpretentious but honest means of storytelling it works wonders.
Over the course of a remarkably condensed and thrilling two hours, we are treated to a knees-up in a tavern, sea chases and the sighting of the great sperm-whale itself. In between scenes, cast members come down to sing folk or sea shanties, beguilingly accompanied on a squeeze-box or mandolin. The harpooning of a whale is given life by the swinging of a pice of rope upstage. You feel like the budget might well have given them change from twenty quid and yet they manage to create more stage magic than you see in most bloated, unwieldy West End shows right now.
Sargon Yelda makes a terrifically assured Ishmael, leading us by the hand onto the beguiling and treacherous open seas, and Joseph Kloska has a ball as Ahab. Limping heavily on his wooden leg that gives him a terrifying first entrance and constantly chewing as if physically manifesting his unyielding desire for revenge, Kloska reminded me of that other great fictional pioneer, Daniel Plainview in There Will Be Blood, forever fearlessly searching and overreaching. However it seems churlish to single out individual performances when this is an evening when every member of the company shines.
This production takes the primal childhood joy of dressing up and make-believe and marries it with brilliant technical stagecraft. It’s a remarkable achievement and should put director Sebastian Armesto and Simple 8 in the front rank of companies working in this country today.