‘Moby Dick’ writer Herman Melville had a long sealife of his own aboard various merchant schooners, whalers and warships. In five years at sea, he deserted his crew, got captured by cannibals and led his colleagues in a mutiny. That last experience is, one suspects, at the heart of ‘Billy Budd’, the novella Melville left unfinished when he died.
Budd, a stuttering, sweet-hearted soul impressed into the navy, becomes a favourite with his mess-mates. (Think Christopher in ‘Curious Incident…’ or Forrest Gump.) His callous commanding officer Claggart takes a fancy to him, trying unsuccessfully to force him into another sort of service altogether. Rejected and bitter, Claggart attempts to frame Budd for mutiny, the slightest sniff of which carries a punishment of hanging.
Seb Harcombe’s devised production for Secret/Heart – like Melville’s writing – swells with an authentic atmosphere of clanging metal and booming bass shanties. It carries its audience away with a volume and muscle that almost press-gangs us into an emotional response.
However, like many stage adaptations before it, it remains strangely detached from its narrative. Characters become derangedly one-dimensional, like descriptions embodied rather than real people, and events lack the impending inevitability that defines the best drama. Also, without the original’s concluding ambiguity, which suggests Budd might have been guiltier than we figured, it strips Melville of mystery and veers towards straightlaced fable.
Nonetheless, there are some strong performances within. Charlie Archer is a winsome Billy, while Gerrard McArthur’s reptilian Claggart makes the cruelty sting, even if he occasionally borders on Bond villainy. Iain Batchelor gives some great support as Budd’s protector Jenkins.
By Matt Trueman