The whaling ship Pequod was “a ship of the old school,” writes Herman Melville in his 1851 adventure novel Moby Dick.
But before director Adam Cook could launch it again at the Seymour Centre, Orson Welles’ theatrical adaptation of the story would have to undergo a refit and get with the times.
To make the Pequod float for a 21st century audience, it would have to reflect the world of today.
“Welles wrote the piece for a dozen men and one token woman playing a black boy from Alabama,” Cook explains. “It was like, ‘well we don’t have any black actors so madam you will read the part of Pip.’ There is no way in the world we could take that approach.”
Welles adapted Melville’s 600-page novel into a tight two-act drama for the stage in 1955. Its original cast – a stellar one including Christopher Lee, Gordon Jackson, Patrick McGoohan and Joan Plowright as Pip – reflected the theatre of those times: overwhelmingly male, overwhelmingly white.
“Having just finished The Rolling Stone, I was very mindful of creating opportunities for actors of culturally diverse backgrounds,” Cook says. “In the book, the Pequod has crew from all over the world on it. So we wanted to reflect that. But then I also wanted to explore what roles could be played by women.”
Four of the play’s major roles, in this Sport for Jove production, are now played by women: Starbuck, the young chief mate of the Pequod, is played by Francesca Savige; Rachel Alexander (seen recently in The Walworth Farce at KXT) is Pip; Vaishnavi Suryaprakash, who made her debut in Belvoir’s Sami in Paradise earlier this year, is the harpooner Tashtego, and Queequeg, the heavily tattooed “bosom friend” of the story’s narrator, Ishmael, is played by Wendy Mocke.
They are roles with real agency, says Cook. “I knew all along that we didn’t want to cast diverse actors and then all they get to do is play the tambourine.”
Actor Wendy Mocke, born and raised in Papua New Guinea, says it’s more than a simple matter of changing gender pronouns.
“If we were going to make Queeqeg a woman – specifically a woman from PNG – we had to work out what that would mean for the character and the story,” she says.
For example, in the novel, Ishmael and Queequeg famously end up sleeping in the same bed in a Nantucket hotel. Were Queequeg a PNG woman, “that just wouldn’t happen,” says Mocke.
“That was the start of a lot of conversations about the dynamic between the two characters. What was most important for me was not removing any agency. I want to empower Queequeg. She’s the daughter of a chief, a warrior woman. In my mind, what’s driving her is that she wants to break free from all the expectations that come with her traditional background. It’s about doing what she wants – sailing the seas, having adventures – instead of fulfilling duties in her family and her tribe.”
Mocke has also translated some of Queeqeg’s lines into tok pisin, the most widely-used of more than 800 languages spoken in PNG.
“We’ve opened the story up to a larger community, especially to women and people of colour,” Mocke says. Theatre should reflect the world as it is and its complexities.”
Welles’ version of the story has been performed in Sydney before but not for many years. Cook saw it in 1990 at the Marian Street Theatre.
“It was a Queensland Theatre Company production, Rodney Fisher directed it and John Stanton played Ahab. I remember enjoying it and lines from it have stuck in my head ever since: ‘There can be no hearts above the snow-line. Oh, ye frozen heavens! Look down here!’ I thought it was so beautiful and so striking.”
The trick to Moby Dick, says Cook, is to balance the narrative drive of the story with its poetic language. Too much of one or the other will cause the ship to list.
“You want the whale hunt but you also want the more lofty rumination the book is full of,” he explains.
“Welles was reading so much Shakespeare at the time, you can absolutely tell. He puts one clever little pastiche of the chorus speech from Henry V in the play. There is an imaginative pact with the audience when it comes to visualising the action.”
Cook’s approach is “poetry slam meets Stomp”, he says. Thomas Royce-Hampton, for example, will be drumming a live score as well as playing Ishmael.
“It’s a great marriage between [composer Ryan Devlin’s] music, the drumming, the imaginative movement, and Gavan Swift’s lighting. All the bells and whistles, as we sometimes derisively call them, are absolutely essential to bring this world to life.
“It’s not literal or illustrative. Instead of people hauling ropes and unfurling sails, it’s more how Steven Berkoff might do it. And anything that smacks of Muppet Treasure Island, as adorable as that is, can’t be in it.”
Moby Dick plays the Seymour Centre until August 25.