During composer Jake Heggie’s recent lunch conversation with the press (which you can listen to over on the feature side), I asked whether — in preparing his opera of Moby-Dick — he had seen any of the other stage productions of Melville’s novel. No. He said he had seen the vivid but often maddening 1956 John Huston film, but mostly as a guide to what not to do. Actually, Heggie referred to “film versions” — plural — which I take to mean he also saw the 1998 Patrick Stewart made-for-TV version, which uses almost none of Melville’s language. Or perhaps the 1930 film which has a striking John Barrymore as Ahab but a laughable love interest added.
But onstage instead of onscreen, there have been several very interesting adaptations of the novel, and I’d suggest that an area theater might seriously consider programming Moby Dick Rehearsed next year, during the Dallas Opera’s world premiere of Heggie’s version. Together, the two shows would serve this landlocked North Texas area some serious seafood.
Moby Dick Rehearsed was written and directed by Orson Welles in 1956 (the same year Welles had a memorable cameo in the Huston film as the Reverend Mapple). It was a stark, “anti-naturalist” production with actors in street clothes using bare props (brooms, chairs) for whatever they needed. Welles explained the staging, a little coyly I think, by framing it as an old-style acting company, complete with a silver-maned “actor-manager,” taking a break from performing Shakespeare. And they just happen to run through this new script. The production is famous as another one of the “great lost projects” of Welles: It was actually filmed but a complete print has never been found (although people have seen daily rushes of individual scenes). And there are video clips of Welles, in later years, reading sections of the novel.
The script of Rehearsed still exists, however, and has been staged several times to noteworthy, even thrilling results, most recently by the Acting Company in New York (and on tour). Admittedly, such a show would not be a small commitment: It requires 14 cast members and some extensive rehearsing for the physical demands.
As for the other adaptations, there is a one-man version, believe it or not, that I’ve never seen and have long been curious about. And performance artist Laurie Anderson re-conceived the novel in 1999 as Songs and Stories from Moby Dick.
As its title suggests and Ms. Anderson’s previous work would lead one to expect, this is nothing like Melville’s Moby-Dick. I’ve no problem with radical treatments (given the nature of Melville’s novel, a radical treatment is what’s called for to make it work on stage). And I’ve enjoyed Anderson a great deal in the past, but her work has become shtick-y. In this case, it was “Laurie Anderson’s Ingenious But Coy, Post-Modern Treatment of Moby Dick.” The production at the Brooklyn Academy of Music was notable mostly for two things, Anderson’s use of her violin and electronic “talking stick” to give us the whale’s forlorn songs (we got to hear his side of the story, as it were) and the lead performance of Tom Nelis as Ahab. Nelis was injured during rehearsal and resorted to crutches — which turned out to be a brilliant tool. I still remember him swinging them gymnastically, propelling himself across the stage at high speed, booming, “I seek the white whale!”
The claim is that director Mike Figgis shot two performances of Songs and Stories in London, but any film version has never been released to theaters or on DVD.
Which brings up this final version: There’s a Timur Bekmambetov film adaptation reportedly in the works. He’s the Russian director of Nightwatch (flawed but fun) and Wanted (silly). The project’s two screenwriters “revere Melville’s original text, but their graphic novel-style version will change the structure. Gone is the first-person narration by the young seaman Ishmael, who observes how Ahab’s obsession with killing the great white whale overwhelms his good judgment as captain. This change will allow them to depict the whale’s decimation of other ships prior to its encounter with Ahab’s Pequod, and Ahab will be depicted more as a charismatic leader than a brooding obsessive.”
Which actually sounds like Heggie’s interpretation of the Captain.