REVIEW: Simple8 in Moby Dick, York Theatre Royal, on the hunt till tomorrow ***

Guy Rhys’s Captain Ahab in Simple8’s Moby Dick

THE publicity for Simple8’s Moby Dick promised a “fun, fast and joyous” production: three words not usually associated with Herman Melville’s labyrinthine leviathan novel.

What’s more, writer Sebastian Armesto described his adaptation as “mercifully brief”. “If you haven’t read the novel, you can watch our show and then pretend that you have,” he said, wryly.

Fun? No? Joyous? No. Fast? First half, yes, but the second half began to lull before a storming finale. Overall, “mercifully brief” would be doing a disservice to the intelligence and theatrical invention behind Royal & Derngate artistic director Jesse Jones’s production, although it never quite reaches the sublime heights, beauty, tragedy and surprising humour of Ockham’s Razor’s circus adaptation of Tess at the Theatre Royal last month.

The two touring productions share a use of planks of woods and sheets, an ensemble cast and a script pared back from a weighty 19th century novel, along with a combination of physicality and psychology that is the essence of theatre.

Spoiler alert, the whale of the title that cost Captain Ahab his leg turns up only in the “last few pages” as Guy Rhys’s Ahab takes his vendetta against the sperm whale to reckless extremes with his Pequod crew.

The rest is imagination: getting inside the head of Ahab and, first, the equally single-minded Ishmael (Mark Arends), the schoolmaster drawn to Nantucket to experience whale hunting on the Pequod.

The unseen threat of Moby Dick – mirroring Covid’s creeping progress, as Armesto commented in his interviews – is conjured through description and even in the shape of bones held aloft by cast members as we await the leviathan’s stealthy arrival. The only puppet is a porpoise pulled from a bucket.

Equally, Captain Ahab is the subject of much discussion, the last to arrive on board, inducing fear, adrenaline and stomach butterflies as much as the whale. His delayed entry, when it does come, is preceded by the thud of his stump, raising the blood pressure still more.

Arends’s Ishmael, rather than Ahab, is the narrator, the thinker, the innocent, intrigued outsider, learning as we do, gradually consumed by Ahab’s obsessive mission for vengeance.

In keeping with the duties of a crew, Jones’s ensemble cast of actor-musicians are “all in this together”.  “Everyone does everything for a really live, complicit experience,” as Armesto puts it. They act, they move scenery, they sing rousing, haunting sea shanties, all the while evoking the dangers of the sea and the mystery and the wonder of whales.

Who needs water or the shape of a whaling ship when you can make do with plenty of floorboards, scaffolding, sheets, a raised platform and a crow’s nest.

Armesto has called his play “a ripping yarn, a great piece of theatre for all ages”. It has humour, especially in the first encounter of Ishmael and Tom Swales’s Queequeg; it has spectacle too, but it is primarily a psychological drama full of existential fear and isolation, more than a seafaring (mis)adventure, leading to the loss of momentum until the climactic clash of whaler and whale.

For all that talk of being “fun, fast and joyous”, you should not expect to have a whale of a time, but Armesto, Jones and a highly committed cast deliver a deep dive into Moby Dick.

Simple8 in Moby Dick, York Theatre Royal, 7.30pm tonight; 2.30pm and 7.30pm tomorrow. Box office: 01904 623568 or ***