From the silver screen to the West End, the reality of oceans and the pursuit of seafaring are vanishingly rarely rendered convincingly say Libby Purves

I won’t be in theatres with a notebook as much as usual this month – time for some wider, wetter horizons – but may be musing, as I often do, on how rare it is for theatre to express a convincing reality about the oceans and the trade or pursuit of seafaring.

It’s easy for films – all that CGI, great sweeping pans across the waves to bring home the immensity and strangeness, the threat and joy of the element. Plenty of thrills in the cinema, whether you prefer the melancholy loneliness of Crowhurst, the period gung-ho of Napoleonic wars, or that yachting thriller with Nicole Kidman in a very impractical onboard bra-slip fighting off a psychopath.

But in stage plays the sea is a metaphor, a bit of language, or else, at best, a backdrop. Maybe the action is taking place on the docks, as in Arthur Miller’s A View From the Bridge, or else by the seaside, as in innumerable British comedies. Or maybe the seafaring all happened in the past, and now the lost sailor is coming back, usually having been thoroughly de-socialised by a lifetime at sea.

There was an excellent play this year about Harvard political de-platforming, called Power of Sail, with a promising picture of a model yacht on the posters; but alas, apart from a ropey metaphor about steam giving way to sail, it only applies to the model in the Harvard professor’s study because its white mainsail looks sufficiently like a Ku Klux Klan hood to set the political theme. The model gets wrecked by a student protester’s brick through the window, anyway.

Life at sea, however – the daily effort, the life of a crew confined by both small space and mutual life-and-death responsibility? You don’t find that so much in live drama.

Playwrights do sometimes try: Eugene O’Neill wrote seven sea plays, but they’re rarely seen. Shakespeare allowed us a good storm, with quarrelling alarm onboard, at the start of The Tempest, which directors either overdo or grumpily ignore.

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Otherwise what? Life of Pi is a rare exception, since it’s nearly all set at sea, and the puppetry was fantastic; but being stuck in a lifeboat with a tiger is, to say the least, untypical. Musicals do better, but like Anything Goes, they’re likely to be more about big liner passengers than the crew.

The newer Titanic musical is pretty good, and does express a sense of the sea. But the most seafaring of all seafaring tales is Moby-Dick, which failed as a musical in the 1990s and then became a play-within-a-musical about schoolgirls doing it, which was even worse.

But suddenly, without me and my critic’s notebook having held out much hope, this year, in Northampton of all landbound places, there launched a new touring adaptation of Melville’s novel by Sebastian Armesto, directed by Jesse Jones of the Simple8 company.

No big set, no gimmicks: two bits of scaffolding, a ladder and some planks which the nine-strong cast moved around, creating decks and whale-boats. But it picked up the key bits of the novel’s language, the tetchy comradeship of the crew, the choreographed sway and lurch and clambering of living on a tall ship at sea for months on end.

It evoked the controlled panic of preparing for an approaching storm, the scrubbing and maintaining, the uneasy wakefulness off-watch when Captain Ahab’s ivory leg stumps around overhead.

It gives you the spreading of charts as master and mate scan the secret routes of winds and whales across a featureless ocean, and the still moments of calm when ordinary men sit around arguing and philosophising, daring to share quiet thoughts and hopes about missing home, fearing or revering the massive creatures they hunt and which they fear hunts them too. As one says, ‘There’s a holiness in the whale.’

I thought it was brilliant. Not least because from time to time, without musical-theatre preamble and often just briefly, the men broke into the real songs of the time and of the sea: the ‘Greenland Whale Fisheries’, the ballad of Franklin, the hymn ‘Will your Anchor Hold?’

All the grandeur and mystery was there, the flawed courage and thoughtful sadness that the young Melville had found in his time on a whaling ship. All done with planks, ladders, words and human thoughts: the spirit of seafaring which we, in our small, yachtie way, find every time we make a voyage. I hope it comes back.

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