Tuesday, 23 July 2013

Theatre review: Billy Budd

Is the new Southwark Playhouse deliberately stripping themes across its two studios or is it happening by accident? After an (aborted) South American theme to open with, it's all going nautical now. The Large will shortly be hosting a musical Titanic but for now The Little brings us some more peril at sea with Herman Melville's Billy Budd. The titular Billy (Charlie Archer) has worked on merchant ships since childhood when, aged about 20, he's conscripted by the HMS Indomitable. A simpleton who's unable to see anything but good in people, he quickly charms the rest of the sailors and becomes a calming influence over the whole crew. It could also be said he charms the master-at-arms as well, but this coldly sadistic man reacts very differently: He deals with his attraction to Billy by trying to destroy him.

Although the story is set in the 18th century, Nicolai Hart-Hansen's designs for Seb Harcombe's production keep the setting very vague, with a number of anachronistic touches (not least of all the light bulbs, which even include an energy-saving one.) The suggestion is that the show is more to do with the characters of people who - willingly or unwillingly - end up spending their lives at sea, rather than about the background.

So atmosphere becomes key, provided in part by the cast performing sea shanties during scene changes, plus in one scene two Welsh sailors (Iain Batchelor, Jonathan Leinmuller) burst into nostalgic song as well, before puncturing the picture they've built up with the honest facts about the families they've left behind there. In the middle of this though the central relationship is between Billy and the master-at-arms, Claggart, whose antipathy for Billy the production clearly sets up as being down to his barely-suppressed homosexuality. Gerrard McArthur plays Claggart as being vicious to the men to conceal his attraction to them, although while these scenes of cold brutality are played well, the scenes of the master-at-arms almost uncontrollably aroused by Billy see McArthur overdo the facial tics and twitches.

Other elements are left a bit more enigmatic, like whether the quiet Polish sailor's (Joel Gorf) deeper understanding of Claggart's motivation comes from similar feelings of his own. The play is bookended by scenes years later when the now-wounded Captain Vere (Luke Courtier) is torturing himself over the way he dealt with these events: A fear of mutinies sees him follow the letter of the law to an extent that proves tragic for Billy.

This is a pretty intense little show, well-matched to the smaller space and quite creatively staged, although not without its problems: Harcombe's moody production hasn't really reconciled the rough sailors' life it portrays with their tendency to break off and philosophise, and there's a few extraneous characters that betray the heavy editing of a much longer work - Christopher Hammond's O'Daniel seems like he'll be an interesting figure only to vanish completely in the second act. But overall this is involving and moving.

Billy Budd by Herman Melville1 is booking until the 10th of August at Southwark Playhouse's Little Theatre.

Running time: 2 hours including interval.

1whoever adapted this for the stage hasn't been credited in the programme so presumably it's been put together by the company?

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