Moby Dick, John Godber Company, Stage @TheDock, Hull, until Saturday, 7pm and 4pm Saturday matinee. Box office: Eventbrite via thejohngodbercompany.co.uk
HULL was once among the world’s busiest whaling ports. At its peak, 68 whaling ships were registered to the East Riding dock and whale-processing oil and blubber factories spread over the Greenland yards on the River Hull.
In the wake of the Industrial Revolution, Hull had as many theatres as any city, and sometimes the stench from the factories’ pots of boiling blubber was so malodorous, theatres had to cancel performances as the pong was so overpowering.
The processing plants and ships have gone, the docks and Fruit Market have undergone a new industrial revolution, now housing solicitors’ offices, digital spaces, bars and restaurants and a gallery, under a vision realised by the Wykeland Group, triggered in part by Hull’s year as UK City of Culture in 2017.
In the shadow of The Deep visitor attraction, Stage@TheDock took over the shell of the central Hull dry dock at that time, and now John Godber, who has done so much to keep theatre open, alive and kicking in Hull, brings whaling, theatre and the amphitheatre together with support from Wykeland and an Arts Council England grant from the Culture Recovery Fund.
The John Godber Company’s Moby Dick is billed as a “new radical adaptation” of Herman Melville’s epic 1851 American novel. More precisely, it is a radical reworking of Godber and co-writer Nick Lane’s original, no less radical script for Hull Truck Theatre in 2002, a revision/reinvention that Godber describes as “filleted, better and topical”.
The first version was told by four old soaks in a bar on its own last orders; this time, an East Yorkshire professional cast plays eight modern-day characters, each with a relationship with this part of Hull through their parents or grandparents, whose stories they recount as the play dips in and out of the novel’s Godber-gutted story, like a ship’s passage through waves.
2002’s four-hander – “What were we thinking?! Four! It was almost impossible,” recalls Godber – was different in other ways: staged indoors at the old, compact, 150-seat Hull Truck. 2021’s John Godber and The Whalers’ show fits Step 3 times: a 70-minute performance with no interval, staged outdoors to a socially distanced audience, spread out over seating reduced in capacity from 350 to just shy of 90.
Covid-safety measures prevail too: staff in masks, tick; hand sanitiser, tick; surface cleaning, tick; cast Covid-testing regularly and staying together in a B&B social bubble, tick.
Within the cavernous dock’s stone walling is the wooden-floored stage that here becomes the deck of Captain Ahab’s ship, the Pequod, in his catastrophic, deranged, self-destructive battle with the monstrous white whale, Moby Dick.
Props are wooden too in the form of myriad pallets for constant rearrangement into different shapes to evoke, for example, the bow and to create a percussive sound when thrown down or knocked over. A rudimentary ship’s wheel is ever present and loose pieces of wood serve as harpoons. The bike ridden by Martha Godber’s impassioned narrator, Lucy, is the one concession to modernity.
Given the 7pm start, no lighting or special effect is needed for a back-to-basics yet epic production that, in Godber tradition, is driven by storytelling, physical theatre and teamwork (or should that be crew work?) as much as by individual performance.
This remains a dry dock in every way, no water to be seen throughout, and yet this Moby Dick still conjures the dangers, the rhythms, the vastness, of the sea through the cast’s movement and sound effects.
Sea shanties pepper the performance too, not least the newly ubiquitous chart-topper Wellerman, and it will come as no surprise to devotees of York Stage that Goole-born May Tether’s singing stands out.
Frazer Hammill’s Captain Ahab has the air of the blue-eyed cult-leader about him, a law unto himself that no-one dares to stop. Madness, misadventure and death this way lies in a tale as grave as an obsessive Greek tragedy.
Moby Dick finds Godber, who scripted the revised version after discussions with Lane, far removed from the agitated humour of many of his plays.
Instead, in a collective year in the shadow of an elusive enemy, devastating disease, mental anguish, constant uncertainty and ever greater division, there is no bigger fish to fry than a story of timeless human failings in command, set against the context of a modern-day discourse on Hull’s global importance as a port, its whaling past and the rising need for conservation.
Come Hull or high water, you will have a wail, rather than a whale, of a time as the Godber harpoon hits home hard.