Words by Catherine McLean

It has been over 150 years since Herman Melville wrote his illustrious novel in a single feverous winter, but Until Monstrous’ grueling stage adaptation of Moby Dick proves that it is an outstanding piece of Western literature.

Showing at the University of Melbourne’s intimate Guild Theatre for one week only, this mammoth stage adaptation of the legendary voyage of the Pequod is terrifying, deeply moving and darkly humorous. The Pequod is led on a mission of revenge by (a rather imposing and tyrannical) Captain Ahab, fuelled by a maddened and monomaniacal desire to kill the ferocious and enigmatic white whale, Moby Dick – the whale that severed Captain Ahab’s leg at the knee off the coast of Japan.

Spectators must appreciate Until Monstrous’ ambition in this adaptation. Adapting a 900-page novel of Shakespearean proportion is no easy feat. Due to the content and lyricism of the novel, the story of Moby Dick does not transfer easily to the stage… getting a real, live whale on stage might have proved difficult.

The set, props and costuming were impressive considering how difficult it must be to effectively pull off a whaling ship at high seas on a small stage. Working with a chilling score and lighting effects, Moby Dick: Show Thyself transported the audience to the gory reality of a 19th century whaling ship. At times, I even felt a bit seasick! And I really loved the use of (presumably fake) whale guts.

Overall, the casting was very well done. I particularly enjoyed the portrayal of Stubb, the Pequod’s second mate. As a happy-go-lucky, spritely figure, he adds some comic relief to the otherwise deeply tragic and terrifying world of Moby Dick. At one point in the play, the ship’s crew is battling against a raging typhoon and Stubb is happily walking around the deck, chatting to the crew as though nothing is happening… I just could not stop giggling to myself.

Ishmael, the character who narrates the novel, was also very striking. The actor’s small physique really complimented the imposing stature of Captain Ahab and the master-servant dynamic of Melville’s work. My only complaint was that at times, Ishmael lacked volume, making it hard to hear some of the dialogue and soliloquies which made it difficult to follow Ishmael’s extremely important role in the play.

That aside, this adaptation certainly stayed as true to the novel as possible.  This does, however, extend the time to almost three hours of high tragedy and drama. Let this be a word of warning that this adaptation is more of a grueling emotional experience than a leisurely night at the theatre.

The debut of Until Monstrous’ adaptation of Moby Dick: Show Thyself could not have been timelier. Following the United Nations decision to make it illegal for Japanese whaling ships to do “scientific research,” Moby Dick: Show Thyself is a terrifying reminder of the gory reality of the whaling business and the violence, revenge, monomania and madness conjured up by the high seas.

Tickets are still available for Moby Dick: Show Thyself for Friday 4 April and Saturday 5 April.