Last night I attended Moby Dick at Liverpool’s Unity Theatre, adapted for stage by Conor Lovett and Judy Hegarty Lovett from the novel by Herman Melville, with music composed and performed by Caoimhin O’Raghallaigh, as part of the Liverpool Irish Festival. I was also lucky enough to speak to Conor earlier in the day about the play, and the unlikely, yet rather wonderful, transformation of Melville’s novel into a play with just one actor.
This is a gripping, and intense performance, with sustained tension and high drama. Ishmael’s story is accompanied by the perfectly-judged music of Caoimhin O’Raghallaigh, performing on an instrument I had never seen before, but which turns out to be a Norwegian Setesdalsfele “5+5”, a fiddle with five played strings, and five resonating strings below. Together they recreate the atmosphere of melancholy stillness and suppressed danger that pervades the novel itself, from the first ‘loomings’ to its desolate epilogue, and yet do so with a lightness and humour that make this show a joy.
The performance is impressive, but I was also fascinated by the process of adaptation, itself a remarkable feat. Judy Hegarty Lovett, the show’s director, first read the book, and declared it “a natural solo show.” What followed was an intense period of study, stripping down the novel and turning it into a conversation between Ishmael and the audience, a conversation in which he tells the story of Ahab’s “slow demise,” divesting himself of civilisation. Lovett recalled “Every day going down to this semi-submerged vaulted cave thing, I would light my wood burning stove and start filleting our sentences. I felt like I was going on board the Pequod every day … A crazy, intense period.” It is a remarkable adaptation that somehow manages to distill Melville’s book into an intimate, personal recollection, and yet leaves nothing of its magnitude behind.
Having spliced together the key chapters and scenes, finding sentences that would express what they hoped to get across, there was naturally very little room for the encyclopaedic detail for which the novel is famous. Almost everything had to be stripped away to get to the essence of Ishmael’s story, and yet there is obvious pleasure here in Melville’s language, his use of Quaker speech, and moments of comedy. The result is a beautiful jewel of a show that captures the mental and moral decline of Ahab and his crew, and the existential challenge they face. The destructive force of Ahab and the whale, and the profound loneliness of Ishmael at the end of the story, are powerfully handled.
Gare St. Lazare Players have been touring the play off and on since 2009, performing around the world, and Lovett says that it has given him some wonderful experiences, in particular putting on shows around New Bedford, and visiting the whaling museum there, and at Mystic Seaport. This was the last performance of the current tour, before the Gare St. Lazare Players move on with the productions of Beckett which form the bulk of their repertoire, but Moby Dick will be back. I recommend you look out for it, but in the mean time, why not read the book?