[Image: © Slung Low]
‘The White Whale’ by James Phillips
Performed by Slung Low
Location: Leeds Dock, by the Royal Armouries, LS10 1LT
4th – 14th September 2014, 8.30pm
‘You remember when we started to hunt whales again?
These days, it takes something pretty special to convince me to leave the comfort of the house – especially when it involves sitting on a cold dock in the centre of Leeds. Thankfully, The White Whale was worth the effort.
Slung Low have a reputation as masters of unconventional theatre, describing their productions as ‘adventures’ rather than plays. Having missed out on the epic Blood + Chocolate, which ran on the streets of York last year to the highest critical acclaim, I was keen to see what all the fuss was about. Would this updated version of Moby Dick be a case of style over substance?
Upon entering, the audience are given a set of headphones and a radio receiver. After making sure that it is turned on (which proved a little too difficult for some of the members of our group…), we are instructed to put the headphones on. There is soft music, whale noise and, eventually, a spoken warning from artistic director Alan Lane reminding the audience ‘not to fall in’.
So begins an evening that takes the audience on a journey across the water – literally. There are boats and blowholes, harpoons and lifejackets, spotlights and helicopters. Religion, politics and the arrogance of humans play out against a backdrop of water, metal and fire. Music ranges from sea shanties to ‘Amazing Grace’ to ‘Eternal Father, Strong To Save’, and the actors – all brilliant, even if some of the accents are occasionally a little dodgy – have clearly been trained to use the very real boats. Though there are some technical issues surrounding the set, which has a tendency to drift if not moored down at either end, at no point does this detract from the experience. I won’t spoil the ending for those of you who don’t know it – suffice to say I hope the actors were wearing something warm and waterproof under their outfits.
Image: © Slung Low
For me, though, the really lovely thing about this production was the feeling of complete isolation and yet complete immersion. I occasionally took my headphones off – and the silence, broken occasionally by music, soft voice or dogs barking, was eerie. The whole audience were completely enthralled. Surely that’s a sign of truly good theatre.
I tried reading Moby Dick once; I gave up pretty quickly. The text is pretty unyielding, even if the story is intriguing. Thankfully, Slung Low’s production makes the story accessible whilst updating it for a modern audience, entwining Melville’s story with Phillips’ poetic text and touching upon some very real modern issues.
Style over substance? Absolutely not. This production had both – in ample amounts.
Slung Low usually operate on a ‘pay what you like’ basis. In this case, tickets for the production were free. Yep: FREE. The company aren’t just preaching about accessible theatre – they are practising it. Of course, as with any freebie, there are those who claim tickets and don’t attend. This is a huge shame – and I’d urge anyone who isn’t intending to return their tickets.
Slung Low’s Autumn programme is now underway – head over to the site to see what to expect next from the company…