WHERE better to stage John Godber and Nick Lane’s radical reworking of Herman Melville’s maritime (mis)adventure Moby Dick than at Hull’s dry dock amphitheatre.
Welcome to Stage@TheDock – nearest car park, the new Fruit Market multi-storey – where the John Godber Company is presenting a 70-minute, no-interval, fast-paced, socially-distanced, physical production with a cast of eight until June 12.
“We are the first people to put a show on there for more than a couple of nights,” says director and co-director Godber.
What exactly is the Stage@TheDock? “The amphitheatre was established for Hull’s UK City Of Culture in 2017, up by The Deep. It’s what was called Hull’s dry dock and it’s now part of a new development of offices, digital spaces and restaurants,” says Godber.
“It’s also the HQ of the development company, Wykeland Property Group, who put money into setting up the venue and have given us financial support for this show: enough to put the production on in these times; enough to energise us all.
“We started talking with Wykeland in the middle of last year and then nothing developed, but now [with Step 3 of the Government’s roadmap] the opportunity has come up.”
Adhering to social-distancing rules is restricting the 350-seat amphitheatre to a Covid-secure capacity of around 90. “That meant we needed to do a story with a classical arc, one that would fill that space, but we knew that staging Moby Dick would not be possible without funding support,” says Godber.
“That’s why, though we don’t normally seek Arts Council [England] funding, we put in a Culture Recovery Fund bid that’s given us more than a match for Wykeland, and we put some money in too.”
The revised adaptation by Yorkshire playwrights Godber and Lane transports audiences from what was the port’s central dry dock to the deck of Captain Ahab’s ship the Pequod in his catastrophic, deranged battle with the monster white whale, Moby Dick.
“It’s a show we first did at Hull Truck in 2002, and I was really pleased with it. We had a cast of only four: what were we thinking?! It was almost impossible,” recalls Godber.
“We’re delighted to have a cast of eight this time because the pandemic has been a crucifying time for anyone in the creative arts. They’re all local professionals, with two of them new to the professional stage, and we wanted actors with a relationship with this city and this coast.”
Godber’s cast duly draws on actors from Sproatley, Long Riston, Hornsea and Goole, alongside former Wyke College students and locally born actors who have appeared at the National Theatre in War Horse, Warner Bros films and BBC Radio Four soap opera The Archers.
Step forward Frazer Hammill as Frank; Nick Figgis as Rob; Tom Gibbons as Pat; Martha Godber as Lucy; Lamin Touray as Ant; Sophie Bevan as Kate; Caitlin Townend as Sue and Goole-born May Tether as Lily, following her appearance as Jill in the York Stage pantomime, Jack And The Beanstalk.
“The Covid-compliance to put on this show is almost a show in itself. The actors are staying together in an Airbnb in Hull, doing Covid tests twice a week,” says Godber.
“We’ve employed 20 people overall, from producer, production manager and company manager to front of house, stage manager and costume designer, to actors and outreach educators. We’ve all thought, ‘what would we have done without this?’. Not the finance, but the sense of purpose.”
After a couple of phone discussions with Lane, Godber was the one to put the new script together. “It’s a better show because we’ve filleted it. We didn’t want it to be longer than 70 minutes, because the book [written in 1851] is unwieldy to say the least!” he says.
“Our first version was told by four old soaks in a bar that was about to be knocked down, but now instead all eight characters have a relationship with this part of Hull, through their parents or grandparents, as a place for a sandwich and a chat.”
Significantly too, the script makes reference to Hull’s global importance as a port, its former prowess as a whaling centre and contemporary issues of conservation (that chime with Godber, wife Jane and daughter Martha becoming vegans).
“When I was at Hull Truck, I didn’t write about fishing and trawling at first as I didn’t believe it was my privilege, as I came from a mining family, not a fishing one,” recalls Godber.
“But then I thought, if we are going to do something about the fishing industry, it better be the biggest: Moby Dick!
“I like going to Bruges on the Hull Zeebrugge ferry, but that’s only 14 hours; The Prequod is setting off for three years!”
Godber smiles at the rise to the top of the charts of a certain former Aidrie postman with a sea shanty in the pandemic. “One of the weird things, in lockdown, was how Wellerman caught on on TikTok, when Nathan Evans said he wanted to do something to get him ‘out of lockdown’, with all the stoicism lockdown demanded,” he says.
Last autumn, the Godber family bubble of John, Jane, actor daughter Martha and company manager daughter Elizabeth premiered his play Sunny Side Up at the Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough, between lockdowns, rehearsing at home. “It was the only way we could physically put on a new play that wasn’t a one-man show,” he says.
Now, Godber is at the forefront of the second wave of theatre’s return. “The fact you know, without funding, you’re not going to break even, you could think, ‘so what’s the point of it?’, but the point of it is that this is what we do,” says Godber. “Even if has to be a stab in the dark.
“I do believe there’s been a dissolving into Ground Zero for the arts. A survey said 31 per cent of people won’t go back to cultural activities in the same way. That’s a lot of people and they won’t return. I hope people will, but I don’t know if it will materialise.
“That’s why we’re doing this play in the open air for a number of reasons. It’s almost Covid-zero with social distancing, people in masks, sanitisers, the space being wiped down regularly.”
John Godber Company in Moby Dick, Stage@The Dock, Hull, until June 12, 7pm nightly plus 4pm matinees on June 5, 9 and 12.
To maintain social distancing, tickets must be bought in groups of one, two or four; wheelchair spaces are available. Seating is unreserved, so early booking is recommended to avoid disappointment. Tickets cost £20 at Eventbrite.