Sport for Jove’s most recent incarnation is a show you really want to like. Even for a man whose knowledge of Moby Dick is limited to the Simpsons parody and that one reference from Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street, I could see that. The set, costumes, lighting and sound try to make the performance go the extra mile in typical Adam Cook fashion, bringing the whirlwind of voices, energy and bustle of an 1850s whaling ship to the Reginald stage. I never shy away from my adoration of Nigel Poulton’s movement direction, particularly notable in last season’s Prize Fighter at Belvoir, adding to this aforementioned energy and bustle. Yet, even for its visual strengths, the crux of the show is strangely missing; lost somewhere in the misguided acting of its cast and a strained chemistry between them that makes few performances bar Danny Adcock’s Ahab and Tom Royce-Hampton’s Ishmael believable.
It should be noted, first and foremost, that this is not a production of the original Moby Dick. Nor is it a product of the incomplete Orson Welles adaptation. Instead it is its own beast, attempting to distinguish itself by trying to represent the Pequod as a ‘ship of state’ – where the novel’s 30 crewmembers (reduced to a cast of 10 in this show) represent the 30 states of America at the time. This, to me, adds a significant (and unnecessary) complication to the original story. Cook has but 90 minutes to not only tell a tale of blindness and loss, but also one of diversity and coming together. In his own words, he wanted to ‘strike a balance between poetry, philosophy and narrative excitement’.
Instead, he creates a whale that big is simply too big to be killed by one harpoon.
There’s no real way to do Mark Thompson’s set design justice. Within a stage backed by four floor-to-lighting-rig wooden boards (hiding an impressive drum set), two ladders placed on each respective side of the performance space function beyond their literal means to become whales, barriers and planks. More often than not actors don’t leave the stage but simply duck into peripheral view below lighting catwalks, resting on couches or simply sitting. You get a real sense of being on a ship and the kind of community that would typically come with it, complemented by immense Pirates of the Carribean-esque costuming (also on a side note if anyone’s seen the most recent POTC film tell me if it’s any good, I still haven’t seen it) and some sophisticated azure/strobe lighting (bet that’s the first time anyone’s called strobe lighting ‘sophisticated’).
However, if I can’t applaud the set enough, I certainly do have a limit with respect to the acting. The performance begins with a cacophonous collection of different cries from the same people, which creates just as much confusion from the audience as my explanation of it does. We see the same actors put on American, British, Australian and Irish accents constantly, making any kind of separation between them difficult. Not only does this force them to lose the clarity of their dialogue, making us wish they could just stick to one bloody persona, but also makes their performances sacrifice realism for making sure we understand that this play is not Australian. What also results from this big cast with little performance time is a lack of connection between them, making chorus scenes hard to watch as each actor understands their own objectives but not the objectives of others. Thus, songs of the sea delivered by the ensemble drag on; the stories they tell the audience lose the impact they could have had; and we are simply overloaded. No more is this lack of connection emphasised than whenever Adcock as Ahab talks to literally anyone, his delayed reactions and internalisation boosting his performance but creating awkwardness whenever he shares a duologue with black shipmate Pip (Rachel Alexander) or the under-utilised shipmate Starbuck (Francesca Savige).
What I also couldn’t stand is the unequal character development. Royce-Hampton’s Ishmael by far carries the cast – he sticks to one accent, holds the most belief in his lines, and creates a genuine chemistry between other characters and the audience (in times of fourth-wall breaking narration, which whilst intriguing in their experimental nature are too quick for the audience to fully appreciate). However, his role ends after the first half hour, becoming more and more insular as the play progresses. Hell, he even plays the drums or bangs on metal sheets in moments of intense action, creating incredible soundscapes as an actor but not even allowed to participate in such action as a character. Why? Why leave out the only character that the audience first connects with? Why delve into Pip’s backstory in a 15-minute monologue (where again voice work and issues with belief plague her performance), only to have the audience never hear from her again after this? Why even include 3 characters the audience never really meets, shitting on your desire to represent diversity? It just doesn’t make sense.
The play, and indeed the audience, finds itself understanding of the book’s original theme of blindness. Except it’s not blindness to reality, as I envision Herman Melville intending. It’s a blindness to what the play is designed to tell its audience. There’s simply too much going on for us to focus on one thing, let alone it all, and when we are forced to focus on something it is either irrelevant, ends just as quickly as it came, or overwhelmed by other stylistic factors. By all means come for the visual delights, but if you’re looking for theatre that sets sail for one destination and sticks to it, perhaps wait at the dock a little longer.