'Leviathan' – Living Structures
'Leviathan' is a new piece of physical theatre inspired by Herman Melville’s 'Moby Dick' that features a multitude of disciplines including puppetry, circus, live music and spoken word. By its very name, 'Leviathan' suggests that something of biblical proportions is going to happen. Living Structures heighten this anticipation in a number of clever ways – the first being the white anoraks supplied to each audience member. Why, we wonder, do we need such protection?
The theatre space is a massive warehouse within Hackney Downs Studios, without chairs or anything like a traditional stage. Lit by expressionist splashes of light often tinted red, the first thing the audience sees is a vast billowing cloth – the ocean. To one side four women stand, covered in black, reciting a low, mournful song. From the ocean there suddenly emerges a naked man. He swims to us, stands up and begins to recite the opening lines of Melville’s classic. It's a startling, striking image.
From here the performance space – and any hint of a narrative – fragments, dissolves and becomes increasingly abstract. A stern woman strapped to string instruments plays and sings above us, calling out messages of doom (is she meant to be Ahab?). Huge, white pieces of blubber are hung and worked on by sailors dangling from ropes. Fabric is dropped, the lights go down – and suddenly we are in the depths of the ocean, surrounded by bioluminescent organisms, hearing whispered passages of Ishmael’s long, tortuous journey.
There are many moments of beauty in this production – the above paragraph is only a limited list. There is also a great deal of novelty in how the audience experiences it: we begin sitting together, but then are brought into the space itself, to stand side by side (and, occasionally, under) the performers and the massive objects and puppets that drift through the crowded darkness. We are even offered glasses of rum (or seawater if you’re unlucky), and the promise of the anoraks is fulfilled, to a degree.
For all that, though, there are also many moments when one is more impressed with the effort than the result. Several sequences fall flat, as do a few of the performances (though the play rarely slows down enough to feature anything like an individual performance). And then there’s the key difficulty – this feels more like a distorted echo of Melville, rather than any thoughtful adaptation of his work and words into the medium of live theatre. It is visceral, yes – it gets that much about Melville right – but too often the words spoken seem more like part of a chorus, dissolving into a cacophony of pleasing but meaningless sounds.
Overall, though, there is nothing else quite like it. Ambitious, strange and often wondrous, it shows that sound and fury are not everything, but sometimes they are more than enough.