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Brighton Festival 2023

Moby Dick

Plexus Polaire

Genre: Adaptation, Digital, European Theatre, Puppetry, Theatre



Low Down

There she blows! An epic visual feast that stays on your retina, plunging the viewer ocean-deep into Melville’s story of revenge and unexplained mysteries of life by French/Norwegian company Plexus Polaire.





It’s dark reckoning for the soul for our narrator Ishmael, let’s call him that. The black dog is coming for him; he’s rootless and bereft on land. “There are those” he says “who are the living, those who are the dead and those who go to sea.”He’ll join a whaleship and let the unfathomed depths decide his fate.

We’re almost sucked into the deep ourselves, as director Yngvild Aspeli, whose grandfather was a sailor on the west-coast of Norway, floods every inch of the Theatre Royal proscenium arch with watery images, celestial patterns, and existential dread. Told partly though Ishmael (the only actor on stage) but mainly with masterful puppetry, visual design and lighting, Melville’s classic has been flensed like its whales of much of its substance. Release yourself into it though and boy does it pay off. Seven puppeteer/actors cloaked in charcoal sou’westers slink around a split level set and through stage cloths, unsettling with skull faces or looming over their character puppets. Here on the Pequod life is hard for harpooners like Queequeg who set off in the small boats to chase the whales.

Clever use of scale keeps the ships in proportion to the size of the beasts from tiny to huge and conjured from models, masks, projections and puppets that glide and shimmer in a constantly moving seascape like a comic-book come to life. Adding to the sensory overload is a score like a Carter Burwell with added menace and electric guitars; de-rigour for all French spectacles in my experience. Putting female voices in the mix adds a haunting quality though the words are impossible to decipher, as if heard through water. The mood throughout is of a coming disaster; we sense that young Pip’s songs will cease as a storm rages in the heavens. There’s little light and certainly none of the irreverence of Spymonkey’s 2009 production which played equally fast and loose with the narrative.

And what of Ahab? Looking like Gregory Peck,  sounding like Orson Welles (defining Ahabs) he’s first seen on high deck, bemoaning his stump, determined to find and kill the beast that took his leg. His obsession with Moby Dick dissolves reason; there is no other way but to go on. The crew will rouse from their hammocks, grab their harpoons, man the boats and chase the whales and we feel their excitement as they catch one, then repulsion as they flense it; the work of five superb puppet makers and skilful manipulators. There’s a hint of Ismael’s ‘close’ relationship with Queequeg as they squeeze the valuable spermaciti from the dead whale’s head.

Ahab’s inevitable demise is less impressive than other set-pieces and in not showing him strapped by his neck to Moby Dick loses the irony of Melville’s ending. But what it lacks in clear story-telling it makes up for in visual exuberance and an ensemble as tight as a mainbrace.