The White Whale Review

Originally for the excellent Exeunt.

Rumours of The White Whale of Leeds abounded before the show itself hove into view (sorry for the nautical style…it’s infectious). Hints of the idea in development appeared on social media, then photos and videos, showing people diving balletically, or at least energetically, into the water. Billboards and posters began to appear around town, featuring two oil dark hands gripped a straining rope. More like an action movie than indie play. Hmmm…in-ter-est-ing.

Even if you’re a not a social media type, Slung Low in their beautiful silver Airstream caravan appeared in supermarket car parks and free summer festivals around Leeds to tell people about the show and give away tickets for free. Yes for free, as were all tickets for all performances.

Then opening night comes and immediately social media is awash (sorry) with reactions (mostly summarised by ‘OMG OMG this is the best, best, best thing I ever seen. Go see it NOW) and indistinct photos of tiny little glowing figures, against a mass of dark water. One friend of mine uploaded 40 photos of the show. Considering the whole thing is only 80 minutes long that was impressive.

All of which means by the time it is my turn to find my way down to Leeds Dock, for the very last performance of the run, I already have a relationship with it. I have a mass of images and impressions in my head. None of which tell me what the show is but all of which draws me into pleasurable anticipation of finding out how they all fit together.

Leeds Dock is a strange little sleeve of the Leeds – Liverpool canal running beside the Royal Armouries and surrounded by what the developers undoubtedly called ‘desirable waterside living’ but the rest of Leeds calls ‘that empty bit next to the casino’. It is, however, a natural thrust stage made of water. As we arrive, friendly and confident (and all rather beautiful) people in Slung Low t-shirts and fluorescent jackets hand out the headphones and receivers and explain how to use them. Ah yes, it is a ‘headphone’ show, where the live voices of the actors are mixed with recorded soundtrack and fed direct in to your ears as you watch the action. Smiling and welcoming volunteers show you were to stand and where you can sit if you need to and at the given moment indicate silently it is time to don the headphones and start the show.

The White Whale is a free interpretation of Herman Melville’s 1851 novel Moby Dick, which was based on Melville’s own experience on a whaler. The story of Captain Ahab and his relentless pursuit of Moby-Dick, the great white sperm whale, is known of by a great deal more people than have ever read the doorstep sized novel with its extended descriptions of different species of whales and slightly homoerotic accounts of blubber squeezing. James Philips’ text updates the story to a near future when whale oil is a vital source of power, electronic and explosive harpoons are no longer used and men hunt whales the old fashioned way with small boats, sharp blades and brute strength. Having set this up, the script then leaves it there, which is a relief. Nothing is worse in alternative reality pieces than endless exposition about how we got here and why things are different. They are, now move on.

A lone figure in a boat weaves his way from the far distance, an explosive spout of water marks a whale and the Pequod, the whaling ship herself, surges from below the dark water, breaking through the surface like a half remembered dream come fully back to mind (an impressive feat of engineering, I assume from Pete Gunson). What is excellent about Alan Lane’s production, in the simple but beautifully effective design by David Farley, is that none of these things are pretending to be the actual things. We are not pretending that Leeds Dock is the wide ocean, that these water spouts are whales, that a smallish metal box is a whaling ship. But each of these things gives a sense and emotion of the thing it stands for. It seems an obvious point but one that is missed by quite a lot of theatre. The water, fire, smoke and explosions of White Whale are thrilling both for the things that they are, and for the things that they are being in the story.

We are introduced to the crew members, their voices speak intimately into our ears as our eyes take in the epic spectacle. Philips holds back on the introduction of Melville’s central character, and the most famous line ‘Call me Ishmael’. In a clever twist on the original, Ishmael has become a young radicalised man of British Pakistani origin, played with engaging and charismatic intensity by Nima Taleghani. Melville was intensely interested by the symbiotic relationship between the ‘self’ and the ‘other’, notably in ‘Bartleby the Scrivener’ and ‘Benito Cereno’. In White Whale it is the drinking, whoring Anglo Saxon crew, particularly the ‘painted savage’ Q (played with swagger and touching humanity by Christopher Brand) that is the ‘other’ to an abstemious Ishmael. I did miss something in re-imagining the originally black cabin boy, Pip, as European: The original Pequod was a multiracial microcosm of the world at the time and Pip’s fate, cast adrift in the ocean until he is sent mad, recalls the many thousands lost on the sea voyage from Africa to Europe. Angus Imrie’s performance as Pip, though, was not to be faulted; a heartbreaking figure of young energy and vulnerability.

Good concept is nothing without great execution, and The White Whale is truly a team effort. For me what held the whole thing together was Heather Fenoughty’s sobbing, soaring music, which underscored the action with emotion. Studded through the play were gorgeously sung shanties and hymns which pulled us into the play just as they pulled the characters together. The sound was, as ever in a Slung Low show, subtly and ingeniously designed by Matt Angove. Ric Mountjoy’s lighting captures both mood and action and managed to blend seamlessly with the civic lit surroundings. Phillips’ script fillets Melville’s baggy narrative for the bare bones of an action adventure with metaphorical edge. And unlike Melville, it wears its poetry and allusion quite lightly: the water filled with whale blood is ‘incarnadine’, they sail on a Homeric ‘wine-dark’ sea. And mention also has to be made of Oliver Senton’s powerfully understated Ahab. If ever there was part made to chew the scenery it was that and he wisely kept it mostly low key, with moments of sudden, explosive violence. Like the others mentioned, Senton is a Slung Low regular. This is a team that has worked together a lot and it shows. Each part works together, responding and adding to the director’s vision. Kudos as well for the enlightened and engaged people and policies at Leeds City Council, which made this production possible through a Leeds Inspired Commission.

The White Whale is a story of obsession:  the mad obsession of one man to take revenge on a whale, obsession with money, with power, with religious grace. It is also the story of one theatre company’s obsession with making the extraordinary happen for everyone in an unloved corner of Leeds.

Why care about ‘why do we care’?

This is a post about that old writing note ‘but why do we care?’ Sometimes also appears as ‘it was alright but I didn’t really care about her/it/them’. I’ve heard it and, god help me, probably said it enough times. There are many, many things we can get out of a performance – intellectual stimulation, information, challenge, amusement, shock, even (one performance by Forced Entertainment in particular comes to mind) the peculiar meditation brought about by beauty coinciding with boredom. Why does empathetic engagement (or ‘caring’) get privileged so much in criticism of plays?

To answer – a digression of sorts. I’ve just got back from holiday (it was very nice thanks). We were staying in a house my family have had since I was born forty something years ago. The books in it have accreted over that time period and are a mixture of classics, airport blockbuster types, children’s and sci-fi; four decades of family holiday reading.   

books

Casting around for something to read in the odd moments I wasn’t chasing after three small children, I came across ‘The Summer before the Dark’ by Doris Lessing. Now I love Doris Lessing – Golden Notebook is up there as one of my all time favourite books and I reckon I had to have read this as the edition dated from early 80s (written mid 70s) and it was falling out of its binding state of well read. But funny thing was when I started reading it I couldn’t remember a thing about it. Which was odd because it is bloody brilliant. The protagonist is 45 year old mother of 4 children and every sentence utterly nails the experience of being a mid 40s woman. 

Inter alia (us nerds like phrases like inter alia) the book contains this delicious passage: ‘everyone stood up to applaud and applaud, in the way we use in our theatre, as if the need of the actors to be approved, the need of the watchers to approve, feeds an action – palms striking repeatedly together in a fusillade of noise – which is a comment quite separate and apart from anything that has happened on stage…but is more of a ritual confirmation of self-approval on the part of the audience and the actors for going to the theatre and for acting in it.’

So I’m reading and admiring the book and wondering how I didn’t read it before and then three-quarters of the way through a young woman character enters the story. And I can remember everything. In vivid detail. Not only can I remember it the image of this young woman – sitting in an evening dress, eating baby food from a jar, has been lurking in my mind for years without knowing where it came from. And the answer is that when I read it I was (probably) a teenager, closer in age to the young woman and the state of a mid 40s woman was a strange and distant country. 

Emotion points attention (there is a lot of good neuroscience research in this which at some time I am going to look into). Emotion makes memories. Emotions are easier to engage with people whose experience reflects our own. All things we generally ask for in plays – get the audience’s attention, engage them with what is happening, make them remember it. At some point in some way a good piece of theatre will engage with our emotions. There are a couple of things I take away from this.

First – there are a whole range of emotions that can be generated by a work – excitement, fear, surprise, suspense – caring for or about one or more of the characters is one option. A particularly useful option when it comes to protagonist dramas (on which much more to come) but still only one option. Rather than why do we care? maybe a better question is what does this play offer? or what will it feel like? Equally difficult/impossible to answer, especially if you are the one writing it, but at least not reductive to one mode of emotional connection.

Second – and this goes out especially to my fellow play nerd/literary friends who will tend to read rather than see the play – just because I can’t feel it doesn’t mean it isn’t there or that it isn’t good. I had a recent experience of this reading a play about three young men on a stag do. I couldn’t get any purchase on the play – probably the wrong age as much as wrong gender. That doesn’t make the play worth less because I can’t get a handle on it. It is always important to check what perspective, and assumptions, we bring when reading  a piece of work, and get another opinion if necessary. 

Which is not to say caring for or about a character in the play is a bad thing – a lot of the time it is a very important thing especially if you are writing a protagonist drama – but that’s a post for another day.

 

The Sense of Danger Must Not Disappear

Soon (well soon-ish) I will post some proper play writing things up. But before that I want to talk about risk.

I want to talk about it particularly from the position of being a mere 5 hours away from leaving a job, a great job, a job I have loved, after 12 and a half years in order to become a freelance director and dramaturg.

And I really don’t know what is going to happen next. I know a bit about it. I will be directing a new play Conscientious and I am hoping that those nice people at West Yorkshire Playhouse will be bringing me back to do some dramaturgy on a new play.

I know what I can do. I know what I want to do. And I know a bit about how I think I can get there. But there is huge amounts I don’t know about this future and as I take a big leap out of security it is a leap in to the dark.

The sense of danger must not disappear:
The way is certainly both short and steep,
However gradual it looks from here;
Look if you like, but you will have to leap.

And that is how it should be. Every time you write, every time you start to make something, begin a new project, start a new life it is a risk – some bigger, some smaller. But we can’t and shouldn’t know what it will be. Because that means we aren’t trying something new, something we or maybe anyone else in the world has ever tried before.

And there are hundreds of books on risk and how taking risk is the only way to success. Yeah – and it’s the way to failure too. That play might not work, that production fail in what it tried to achieve. This move to see what my own work is, my own career, may indeed end in failure – I won’t do what I want to do. But I will have tried.

And I know that the risk is greater because this isn’t just about me, it is about my family too. And that is why taking risk also means having a safety net somewhere. So that a theatre won’t go bust because a production doesn’t work. A playwright won’t be written off because that play was bad. And as a society nobody will hit rock bottom. We don’t achieve this of course – theatres fear a box office failure, writers bad reviews and our welfare state is tattered and torn. But those things should be there for ALL of us. Because without those safety nets there will be no risks taken – and art, life, business, society needs risk taking.

So here we go. Write the first line. Make the first move. Start the new life. Trust what we know and what we’ve done will get us where we want. Or maybe somewhere more interesting instead.

Take a deep breath.

And go.

Leap Before You Look
The sense of danger must not disappear:
The way is certainly both short and steep,
However gradual it looks from here;
Look if you like, but you will have to leap.

Tough-minded men get mushy in their sleep
And break the by-laws any fool can keep;
It is not the convention but the fear
That has a tendency to disappear.

The worried efforts of the busy heap,
The dirt, the imprecision, and the beer
Produce a few samrt wisecracke every year;
Laugh if you can, but you will have to leap.

The clothes that are considered right to wear
Will not be either sensible or cheap,
So long as we consent to live like sheep
And never mention those who disappear.

Much can be said for social savior-faire,
But to rejoice when no one else is there
Is even harder than it is to weep;
No one is watching, but you have to leap.

A solitude ten thousand fathoms deep
Sustains the bed on which we lie, my dear:
Although I love you, you will have to leap;
Our dream of safety has to disappear. 

— W. H. Auden

What is a Play Nerd?

Do you like plays? Do you watch them? Make them? Eat, sleep and obsessively follow Twitter about them? Then welcome, you are a Play Nerd. This website is a home for all those making, watching, listening, studying and generally hanging out talking about plays. Here you will find topics on all aspects of performance and play making. Plus a few fun nerdish facts along the way.

My name is Alex Chisholm and I am a Play Nerd. Also sometimes known as a dramaturg. That means I help people make plays. Sometimes I’m working with a writer or writers, working on a text. Other times it might be working with a company developing a production. Sometimes I direct plays, sometimes I produce them. I love working on all kinds of plays, in all kinds of ways. Please check out other pages here for ways I may be able to work with you. I am particularly passionate about working with the new, the young, as wide and diverse range of people as possible. It makes life, and art, that much more interesting.

By plays, I mean every form of performance you can think of and maybe a few we can’t think of yet. Everything from one on one performances in a cupboard to large community events, as small as a tweet, as wide as your imagination, written, devised, with words or without: they are all plays.

So drop in: comment, suggest, question and contribute. I look forward to play nerding together.