Selectively combining a pair of masterpieces (Herman Melville’s 800-page Moby Dick and nearly five hours of Claude Debussy’s orchestral works—notably La Mer) with two primary means of expression (mime and dance) has created the Stratford Shakespeare Festival’s boldest production of the 2008 season.
This specially commissioned work utilizes the considerable creative capabilities of director Morris Panych. As daunting as the project is, the Stratford troupe very nearly pulled off an artistic tour de force of equally mammoth proportions.
Let’s start with what works.
There is virtually no dialogue; only infrequent diary entries pre-recorded by Shaun Smyth as the wandering Ishmael are heard—curiously similar to Isaac Julien’s recent documentary of Derek Jarman, key phrases are repeated, echoing themselves in the caverns of his mind). Consequently, the story must truly be seen to be understood.
From the opening montage of bug-eyed sailors floating in the brine, it’s clear that the contributions to movement (Wendy Gorling), choreography (Shaun Amyot, whose obvious skill calls out for a few members from Canada’s ballet companies to join the fray and improve the precision ratio), set design (Ken MacDonald), lighting (Alan Brodie), sound (Wade Staples—the waves were wonderfully evident, even in the lobby) and costume (Dana Osborne dressed her talented charges with astonishing skill and imaginative solutions—most especially the full-body tattoos of the “heathen”) must carry the show. All of these disparate components try to meld into the perfect narrative storm in hopes of keeping this nautical fantasy on an even keel.
Absolutely spectacular was the stylized depiction of the mighty whaler riding the high seas. Three mast-high triangular ladders were, literally, rigged by the crew. Positioned with their backs to the audience, the men uniformly furled/unfurled their loose-fitting shirts as the imaginary winds took hold of the fabric and magically propelled the Pequod on its quest for Captain Ahab’s (David Perry) huge white nemesis.
Later, the mainsails were lowered or raised as the seamen hauled on invisible ropes in sync, and the broad flapping sheets responded in kind before our spellbound eyes.
Then, just as post-intermission doldrums threatened to becalm the art, the best-of-show tall-ship propulsion came to the rescue. A sail large enough to almost cover the Studio Theatre stage was stretched out to its four corners before billowing high enough to let other crew members scurry underneath, even as the ship’s crest was miraculously illuminated on the buoyant cloth. Perhaps pulled out of the hat once too often, this wind-and-sail effect managed to steer the production back on course in a most spectacular fashion.
Also effectively adding verisimilitude to the conceit of invisible/visible ship (what fun it would have been to fill our ears with portions of Wagner’s Overture to the Flying Dutchman) were the below-decks trapdoor (with bright shafts of light and perpetual mist adding to the effect), the wooden beams of the floor-to-ceiling inner hull and the discreetly deployed tide and seagull sound effects. The only thing missing was a waft or two of salty air—perhaps on the Halifax tour …
Marcus Nance as the idol-worshipping, tattoo-rich Queequeg provided an impressive mix of eye-popping physique (hilariously waking up in bed with Ishmael in their first encounter) and body language (his near-death, feverish shakes made everyone wonder if he’d survive long enough to meet his fate) commanded the stage with every appearance. Yet, like the one-unfurling-too-many, near-incessant thrusts of the pagan idol to his godless heaven, soon became tiresome.
Small-boat searching for whales was smartly accomplished by two oarsmen employing a pair of planks, placing the spear-in-hand hunter between them, then rowing the boards to guide the make-believe craft ever closer to its prey.
Good as all of this was, there is a serious flaw.
The attempt to make the action fit the music had many moments of brilliance but couldn’t maintain the early momentum. Debussy’s evocative, sensual scores have delighted and inspired millions ever since their premières but contain storylines and subtexts of their own that are meant to be heard in carefully conceived orders. Perhaps for royalty reasons, the decades-old Jean Martinon recording was used (featuring an unusual amount of “hiss’ and a somewhat anaemic English horn) where Eugene Ormandy’s same-era rendering would have better tickled the speakers. Ideally, the Montréal Symphony/Charles Dutoit version (unable to plumb the depths of the Classical period, Dutoit is a living marvel for the Impressionists) would have both further delighted the capacity crowd and the government funders.
Nonetheless, Panych did bring a singular vision to the fabled novel and revered music—it must be seen by all who value artists that have the courage to travel a new path. Just imagine the possibilities if a further commission could also include the funds to engage a composer to collaboratively craft a soundscape in concert with the text. JWR