Review of Moby Dick at the Unity Theatre, Liverpool, 17 October 2012

Over at Moby Dick on the Mersey I have reviewed last nights excellent production of 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 impressed. Here’s an extract:

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.

Guy walks on stage and starts telling this crazy story …

Moby Dick in Space

Moby Dick is constantly in my thoughts these days, largely because of the Moby Dick on the Mersey project, but filmmaker Lynne Ramsey has extra-terrestrial plans for Melville’s great novel. According to The Guardian, plans are well advanced for a science fiction film adaptation:

Ramsay is writing the screenplay with Rory Kinnear, who collaborated with her on We Need to Talk About Kevin The Glasgow-born director first revealed details of the project on Simon Mayo and Mark Kermode’s Radio 5 Live show in October a year ago, where she said it would be shot on a low budget. “We’re taking the premise into the galaxy,” she said. “We’re creating a whole new world, and a new alien. [It’s] a very psychological piece, mainly taking place in the ship, a bit like Das Boot, so it’s quite claustrophobic. It’s another monster movie, cos the monster’s Ahab.

“It’s about this mad captain whose crazy need for revenge takes the crew to their death. I’m taking people into dark waters and you see some casualties on the way. It’s fascinating stuff because there’s so much in it.”

The Hollywood Reporter describes the film, which will be titled Mobius, as a “psychological action thriller set in deep space [in which] a captain consumed by revenge takes his crew on a death mission fueled by his own ego and will to control an enigmatic alien”.


Cheap Oil and the Hunting of Whales

Andrew Nikiforuk has a piece over at the British Columbia-based web magazine The Tyee about whaling and the oil industry, reviewing a book about Moby Dick by energy banker, Robert Wagner Jr. Wagner’s reading of the novel in the context of the modern oil industry and its unwillingness to countenance alternatives offers an interesting perspective on our reliance on cheap oil, and the lengths to which we are prepared to go to defend it. As I’ve noted before, the hunting of whales in the Arctic, before Moby Dick was written, also has parallels with the oil industry in the twenty-first century. By about 1820, as the whales began to be ‘fished out’ in the Greenland sea, whalers moved on to the Davis Strait, to the West of Greenland, which, coincidentally, is where modern oil companies are preparing to drill for oil as their desperation for new reserves increases. The Davis Strait proved lucrative for a while, but a lot more dangerous, and even that, in the end, was fished out:

A couple of years ago Robert Wagner Jr., a well-known Houston energy banker, read the famous novel Moby Dick by Herman Melville, a former whaler. It’s a rambling and gritty tale about the 19th whaling industry and America’s first energy boom.

The narrative, which richly details the nature of an economic obsession, squarely harpooned Wagner, a good friend of the late energy critic, Matthew Simmons. “I was blown away by the synergies and the comparisons of whaling with the oil and gas industry, ” says Wagner.

For more than 40 years the 69-year-old banker financed Texas oil deals and had a front row seat to the world’s most volatile commodity while working for the likes of Bear Stearns and Arthur Andersen.

And so the maniacal pursuit of a white whale to illuminate North American homes haunted Wagner. It also reminded him how every age irrevocably passes into another whether people are prepared for change or not.

“The rampant obsessive exploration, production and consumption of hydrocarbons that saturates our society today can be read much like the situation for the men on the Pequod,” notes Wagner. The world of “There she blows” and “Give it to him” actually led, if not descended to “Drill, baby, drill.”


Moby Map

I love the Internet. I really do. People are out there doing imaginative things, and coming up with wonderful stuff like Moby Map, an interactive map based on Moby Dick, which “compiles over 350 geographic locations from the novel (with a few mysteries still unsolved!) into an interactive flash based Google map of the world. Also included is the plotted course of the Pequod, accompanied by descriptions from throughout the novel and icons showing historic whaling grounds.” Brilliant.

Hat-tip to Power Moby Dick.

Whale Skeletons at Hull Maritime Museum

These images were taken at the Hull Maritime Museum. Most of them are apparently the skeleton of a North Atlantic Right Whale, but there are two exceptions: an Orca or Killer Whale, suspended in chains, and the lower jawbone of a Sperm Whale washed up on the Holderness coast and later displayed at Burton Constable. This whale is mentioned by Melville in Moby Dick (1851):

“…at a place in Yorkshire, England, Burton Constable by name, a certain Sir Clifford Constable has in his possession the skeleton of a Sperm Whale…Sir Clifford’s whale has been articulated throughout; so that like a great chest of drawers, you can open and shut him, in all his long cavities – spread out his ribs like a gigantic fan – and swing all day upon his lower jaw. Locks are to be put upon some of his trap doors and shutters; and a footman will show round future visitors with a bunch of keys at his side. Sir Clifford thinks of charging twopence for a peep at the whispering gallery in the spinal column; threepence to hear the echo in the hollow of his cerebellum; and sixpence for the unrivalled view from his forehead.”

Moby Dick on Stage

MobyDickOn a rare night out last night–people with kids are not allowed out unless they are very good–we attended Spymonkey’s Moby Dick at the Liverpool Playhouse. With a cast of four, including a Spanish Ishmael, half a ship and a cabin boy called Pete (or is that Pip?) this is a deranged attempt to cram 900 pages of literary epic into a couple of hours. I mean that as a compliment. The show is a mix of pantomime, vaudeville, slapstick comedy and–sometimes–Melville’s words. The comedy is fast-paced, well timed and utterly silly, though this is clearly a literate and affectionate homage to the novel. In a strange sort of way it does justice to the absurdity of Melville’s masterpiece.

Spymonkey’s Moby Dick is at the Liverpool Playhouse until Saturday October 24th.

Where Melville Wrote Moby Dick

The Kenyon Review has a nice piece by Cody Walker on Arrowhead, the house where Herman Melville wrote parts of Moby Dick, among other things. Writers’ houses don’t often tell you much in themselves of course, but they certainly make a good place to start thinking about the writing:

I visited Arrowhead three times this summer. The view from the piazza is marvelous: a field of tall grass and wildflowers, a stand of maples and birches, and Mt. Greylock, surfacing in the distance. In an 1851 letter to Hawthorne, Melville wrote, “I have been ploughing & sowing & raising & printing & praying, and now begin to come out upon a less bristling time, and to enjoy the calm prospect of things from a fair piazza at the north of the old farmhouse here.” Melville lived at Arrowhead from 1850 to 1863; he wrote “Bartleby, the Scrivener” and the other Piazza Tales during his stay, along with Pierre, The Confidence Man, and the final draft of Moby-Dick — which he dedicated to Hawthorne, “in token of my admiration for his genius.” Facing financial difficulties, he sold half of the property in 1856, and then the remainder in 1863, to his brother Allan and moved his family back to New York, where he took a job as a customs inspector. The property stayed in his extended family until 1927; the Berkshire County Historical Society bought it from private owners in 1975.

[Link via Powermobydick]

White Whales and Wooden Ships

Gregory Peck bites off more than he can chew

There is a great story over at Wired about the whaling ship Essex, which in 1820 was rammed and sunk by a Sperm Whale somewhere in the Pacific. This is the story that partly inspired Melville to write Moby Dick a book everyone should read at least once. Melville of course was a seaman on several whale ships and stories like this would have circulated among his fellow crewmembers. One of the best things about Moby Dick is the way Melville blends the mechanics and science of whaling and whales with their mythic power. The real story of the Essex is fantastical in itself, but Melville’s novel turns the whale into a force beyond nature. From the article:

The ship’s three remaining whaleboats — one had been destroyed by a whale’s flukes during an earlier hunt — were dispatched for the kill. As the harpooning began, First Mate Owen Chase, commanding one of the whaleboats, looked back and saw a large sperm whale, which he estimated at 85 feet, approaching the Essex.

As he watched helplessly, the whale propelled itself into the ship with great force. Some crewmen on board were knocked off their feet by the collision, and Chase watched in disbelief as the whale drew back and rammed the ship again. This time the Essex was holed below the waterline, and doomed.

The crew organized what provisions they could and two days later abandoned ship aboard the three whaleboats. Twenty men left the Essex. Eight would ultimately survive the harrowing ordeal that played out over the next three months.

Here’s the link to the story, which comes with an excellent slideshow entitled ‘The Creatures That Ate Hollywood’.

Here’s my take on Melville’s novel.

Whale Night

The BBC magazine has a piece by Philip Hoare about Moby Dick and the modern plight of whales. Moby Dick is probably my favourite novel, a cross between encyclopedia and adventure story. Like the whale its size is intimidating and its meaning elusive, but it is also funny, self-deprecating, and in the end, extremely gripping. The BBC article is really a trail for an Arena documentary about Melville’s novel, to air in the UK on September 20th, and for the wonderfully titled ‘Whale Night’ on the 21st:

Meville’s sprawling, idiosyncratic novel, published in 1851, was extraordinarily forward-looking. The book used the whaling industry as an allegory of imperial power. Melville configured the crazed Captain Ahab – who goes in pursuit of the eerie White Whale which scythed off his leg, determined to wreak his revenge – as a symbol of obsessive evil.

Only a few days after the 9/11 attacks, Edward Said wrote, “Collective passions are being funnelled into a drive for war that uncannily resembles Captain Ahab in pursuit of Moby-Dick, rather than what is going on, an imperial power injured at home for the first time.”

Such madness is seen as one which endangers the hunter more than it does his prey. After all, as anyone who had made it to the end of Melville’s long and digressive novel knows, it is the whale that wins.

And 150 years ago, Melville addressed the immortality of the whale in a chapter entitled Does The Whale’s Magnitude Diminish? Will He Perish?

I can’t help but agree with what Hoare says about the novel. My own take on it is here, while a rather lovely and beautifully-designed annotated edition of the book is available online here.