It is often said by actors and audiences alike that theatre is their preferred form. Actors revel in the immediate responses and reactions of the audience, and the audience lose themselves in the tangible emotion of the story playing out in front of them.
Imagine, then, that you could take it one step further. That you could, in fact, stand in the middle of the drama, just a pace away from the actors, looking them directly in the eyes as if you were a character in their story.
Director Alan Lane, Slung Low and Opera North achieved just that on an angry, stormy evening in the middle of Leeds’ Victorian docks this August. Re-told in fragments with modern twists from writer James Philips, Herman Melville’s Moby Dick was brought to vivid and dramatic life as The White Whale by actor Oliver Senton, cellist Oliver Coates and soprano Anna Dennis.
An undeterred audience weathered torrential rain and gusting winds, witnessing the story unfold from a footbridge spanning the River Aire and curving over Fearns Island, a grassy tract that splits the waterways that course between imposing mills. There has never been a more appropriate setting in which to play out the dark, brooding danger of Ishmael, Ahab and the Great White Whale.
Senton’s voice provides depth and drama, gravel and gorse, steadfast like a rock hewn at the beginning of the world. At first he is a shadow on the far side of the bridge, lit only by the flare that he holds aloft as he paces along the bank, his words fed directly into the headphones all are wearing. Accompanied by recorded sounds of the ocean and the very real wind and rain, the scene is immediately set.
Senton’s monologues are interspersed with passages of Coates’ cello and Dennis’ voice, at once twisting, stabbing and turning, creating their own aural drama, and then mellowing as the text requires, coming on like folk-Sirens, singing songs to bring sailors straying on to the rocks.
And then Senton is standing amongst the audience in the middle of the bridge. He IS Ishmael, turning to each of the rapped crowd as he wills, connecting with each and every one and drawing them in to his inner world, implicating them in his own drama, searing the story on them all.
So the evening plays out over the next hour. Here is Dennis’ wonderful voice again, weaving between Coates’ fine playing, scoring Senton’s stoic figure looking out across the water. Philips has updated the text at appropriate points. Tactfully and tastefully he brings contemporary touch-points – a reference to modern military conflicts here, a political scandal there. Rather than seeming like crude afterthoughts, little by little they suggest how relevant this seemingly ancient story still is in the modern world.
Then the drama is over, and the audience retreats back to the river bank and off in to the city. This unique and extraordinary performance has brought Melville’s beloved story to dramatic life amongst the churning water and shadowy brickwork of Leeds’ industrial past. Billed as a ‘work in progress’ and being developed for a full production in 2014, one hopes that the work only grows deeper and more nuanced with time. It will be hard to beat the rich and dramatic atmosphere of this ‘rehearsal.’