UK Tour

MOBY DICK at the Royal and Derngate Theatre


“It is one of the finest pieces of theatre I have seen”

Simple8 present an ambitious adaptation (by Sebastian Armesto) of Herman Melville’s epic 1851 adventure, directed by Jesse Jones. There is a minimal set (designer Kate Bunce) of scaffolding on either side of the stage. Through the haze can be discerned a cache of musical instruments – fiddle, cello, dulcimer, drum.

Ishmael (Mark Arends) – a well-spoken, well-dressed schoolmaster – sets the scene. He has come to Nantucket to join a whaling ship, just for the experience. As he moves from bar to bar, he hears talk of the mysterious one-legged Captain Ahab, and the name Moby Dick, anathema to many, whispered in hushed tones. Overnight, Ishmael befriends the gentle savage Queequeg (Tom Swale), and together they join the whaling ship Pequod, fatefully chosen at random.

Now the story can start in earnest. The stage is transformed as the brilliant ensemble, singing and playing throughout, builds an impression of the ship using just wooden planks and ropes. A life at sea is recreated – swabbing the deck, sharing some rum, singing songs. If much of the period dialogue is somewhat stilted, the ensemble excels at their dumbshow set-pieces. The crew man the capstan, turning the imaginary wheel with cries of heave and haul, the efforts of their hard work clear to see. A beautiful rendition of a sailing ballad is heard (Jonathan Charles musical director) as the backcloth shines in green and blue reflecting on the romance of the sea (Johanna Town lighting designer).

And then the spell is broken by the sighting of the crew’s first whale. A most brilliantly conceived and executed scene ensues. The crew row out to chase the whale, to subsequently haul it in and demonstrably kill it. The stage is flooded with red light to emphasize the bloody nature of the deed. It is one of the finest pieces of theatre I have seen.

The narrative, as in the novel, is driven by Ishmael and Mark Arends gives a towering performance in this central role – quietly spoken but assured. Captain Ahab (Guy Rhys) does a lot of shouting – the mantra is “Kill Moby Dick” – but we don’t get to the bottom of his obsession beyond that of having lost a leg. The well-spoken Hannah Emanuel gives rather a too light touch in the important role of Mr Starbuck who is the only crew member able to stand up to Ahab. Something more appropriately rougher is provided by the first mates (James Newton & William Pennington). But this is ultimately an ensemble piece with music and movement (Rachael Nanyonjo movement director) central to the storytelling and this talented cast of actor-musicians are excellent throughout. Special mention too for the cellist whose imitative sounds of whale music, especially during the final chase, is so central to the effectiveness and poignancy of the scenes.

MOBY DICK at the Royal and Derngate Theatre as part of UK tour

Reviewed on 10th April 2024

by Phillip Money

Photography by Manuel Harlan





Previously reviewed at this venue:

THE FROGS | ★★½ | January 2024
2:22 A GHOST STORY | ★★★ | January 2024
THE MIRROR CRACK’D | ★★★ | October 2022
THE TWO POPES | ★★★★ | October 2022
PLAYTIME | ★★★★ | September 2022
THE WELLSPRING | ★★★ | March 2022
BLUE / ORANGE | ★★★★ | November 2021
GIN CRAZE | ★★★★ | July 2021



Click here to see our Recommended Shows page