Before the start of Compass Theatre’s production of Moby Dick fragments of speech and monologue drift into the auditorium along with a North Atlantic fog. Then, as shadowy figures loom stilly from the surrounding darkness, Father Mapple’s sermon (delivered from a raised platform that suggests both the bridge of a ship and a three-decker pulpit) tells how the Lord prepares a great fish for everyone just as He did for Jonah. Dramatic music and nautical song punctuate the opening sequence which ends with Ishmael (a tortured Ben Abell) shooting bolt upright in his coffin.

Clearly this is to be an evening of epic theatre, impressionistic, nightmarish, cinematic in its jump cuts and constant musical underscoring, but boldly theatrical in its acting style and the demands made on the audience’s imagination. So it proves, triumphantly capturing the biblical scale of the novel and teetering constantly on the edge of reason, with magic and superstition never far away.

The outline of the story, Captain Ahab’s obsessive pursuit of the great white whale, is familiar. There is little more to an external narrative which climaxes with the dramatic confrontation of whale and man. Far more complex are the internal narratives of crew members from timid cabin boy to South Sea Island harpooner and the troubled scholar, Ishmael, Melville’s alter ego. The crazed captain is not the only one troubled by demons: the rational Quaker Starbuck, for instance, emerges in Jonathan Oliver’s intense performance as a man equally possessed.

Under Neil Sissons’ direction Moby Dick is a beautifully integrated piece of work, with Richard Hurford’s new adaptation skilfully using a variety of narrative styles (from marine text-book to choral chant) and preserving much of Herman Melville’s magnificent rhetoric. Neil Irish’s design is all decks and spars, flexible and multi-levelled, and Christopher Madin’s Mendelssohn-to-electronics music and Jason Taylor’s dramatic lighting are perfectly matched.

Impressive as Owen Aaronovitch’s manic Captain Ahab is, even more impressive is the committed ensemble playing of the nine-man cast. If anything, the multi-tasking endeavours of Tony Taylor and Mike Burnside (half-a-dozen parts each) stand out, Burnside giving us the portentous Father Mapple and two comic cameos as a Quaker ship-owner with the voice of W.C. Fields and a simple Scots seaman – all in the first half hour!

The bravura vitality of Compass’s production reminds us that Moby Dick was once a favoured stage-piece of Orson Welles who would surely have appreciated the boldness of staging, poetry and power of illusion of this production.

- Ron Simpson (reviewed at the Theatre Royal, Wakefield)