Dangerous Depths. Review by Tjaša Pirnar

03 12 2021

Moby Dick. Credits: Christophe Raynaud de Lage

Author: Tjaša Pirnar

Moby Dick or, The Whale, a novel written in the mid-19th century, was not immediately accorded the status in the literary canon it enjoys today, but its current position is no weaker for it. The expansive tale of an obsessive, frenzied whale hunt captured the imagination of Norwegian director Yngvild Aspeli, who teamed up with assistant director Pierre Tual, dramaturg Pauline Thimonnier and the rest of the creative team to bring the story to life on stage. The production opened in the Norland Teater, Norway, back in October 2020, while the Slovenian audience, or those who happened not to be so far north at the time, filled Cankarjev dom's Linhart Hall in Ljubljana in early November 2021.

The set design by Elisabeth Holager Lund, lighting design by Xavier Lescat and Vincent Loubière, and video by David Lejard-Ruffet create the illusion of a vast sea with the skeleton of Captain Ahab’s ship in the middle, whose crew is chasing a white whale named Moby Dick in revenge for the captain’s lost leg. In his vengeful frenzy, Captain Ahab drives almost all his seamen to ruin. The production raises this as a question of ethics by switching between different characters’ perspectives without giving answers or indeed passing judgement.

One of the vital elements in building the atmosphere is live music by MoE, a Norwegian trio consisting of singer and bass player Guro Skumsnes Moe, percussionist Ane Marthe Sørlien Holen, and guitarist and multi-instrumentalist Håvard Skaset. The soundscape also includes an orchestra, thereby allowing the music to have an almost visceral effect. Dream-like or eerie, it takes us far off the coast. Together, the magnificent visual design and the atmosphere built by the music evoke a sense of awe similar to what one feels when truly grasping the vastness and depth of the ocean and the existence of the creatures living in its waters. In graphic, possibly distressing detail, the show provides a realistic illustration of “successful” whaling. Moby Dick as an on-screen “puppet” scanning the audience while swimming across the stage and occupying it entirely may produce a similarly disquieting effect. The production consistently avoids making any explicit or straightforward comments on whether the protagonists’ actions are ethical, leaving it to the spectator to reflect on violent human intervention in nature if not also to pass judgement. It manages to invoke the glory of nature and the sense of awe it deserves. Unlike many other productions of Moby Dick, it refuses to take a moralistic stand as an omniscient authority with instructions and messages. Instead, it merely stages the story, which essentially deals precisely with this relationship between humans and nature, thereby touching the audience – I believe I can say this not only for myself – more profoundly than any straightforward appeal would.

Throughout the show, we are amazed again and again by the numerous beautiful life-size puppets, animated adeptly by Daniel ColladosAlice ChénéSarah LascarViktor LukawskiMaja Kunšič, and Andreu Martinez Costa. Designed realistically down to the last little detail such as moving eyes, they appear alongside Primož Ekart as Ishmael, as his equals.

Right at the start, Ishmael tells us that there are three types of people: the living, the dead, and those who go out to the sea. His choice is the latter. Just as he is unable to decide between life and death, Ishmael seems to hesitate over the function he is supposed to have in the show. Is he the narrator, keeping himself and the audience at a distance from the action, or is he one of the seamen, taking part in the realistic scenes on stage? Mirroring his role as the narrator in the novel, he seems to take, rather ill-advisedly, the same role in the production. One could perhaps say that Ishmael the narrator is pivotal in raising the philosophical questions that make up a vital element of the book, but this would devalue the power of the visual aspect and other characters’ monologues, as well as overvaluing the seaman’s narration, which never goes beyond mere descriptions of events – not only the events that aren’t played out in front of us, but also those that are and would easily unfold and produce the desired effect without the narrator keeping watch from somewhere above or perhaps below the sea. Despite Primož Ekart’s compelling, engaging performance, Ishmael pushes us away from the depths of the realistic images on stage that we sink into so easily.

The question of life and death is introduced in the first monologue before Ishmael even appears, and subsequently taken up splendidly by the visual aspect of the show. In a very thoughtful gesture, death – that is, animators dressed in black, wearing skull-shaped masks – is the only visible puppeteer. This may be one of the best examples of how much meaning, lyricism and expression the show can demonstrate by effectively using non-verbal tools to its advantage.  

Moby Dick is an extraordinary puppet and music extravaganza that is exciting for youngsters and adults alike. This is a powerful production both visually and musically, cleverly using the tools it has available to stage its substance. Spectacular as it is, it easily distracts us from the less finely honed narrative structure. Still, although not overly confusing, this structure does pull us up from the depths we surrender to in suppressing our non-belief.