Billy Budd is an stage adaption of the novella of the same name by Herman Melville (who is most famous for Moby Dick). Both book and play are the story of an innocent young sailor, William Budd, who is pressed into the navy from the merchant ship he calls home. His naivety and charisma make him instantly popular with all his crewmates, bar one. Despite Billy attempts to befriend him, but he for some reason falls foul of the master at arms, the malicious Clagget. One of the big questions the play seems to ask is why people act in the way they do, as we grapple to try and understand Clagget’s irrational hatred of Billy.
I was initially underwhelmed by what seemed to be the decision to make Billy’s character rather dim. He seemed slightly stupid and bumbling, not the charismatic sailor I had imagined. However, the reasons behind this choice did become apparent. Billy is pure, simple goodness with no complications, and that’s the whole point. He’s not stupid, just so utterly innocent and so somewhat child-like in this innocence. This simple, nervous, kind Billy was played with great conviction by Charlie Archer.
The evil Claggart is everything Billy is not. Critics have often detected biblical undertones to this story, and Claggart has been likened to the snake, Judas and the fallen angel in contrast Billy’s pure goodness. There have also been many homoerotic undercurrents suggested by critics, and this productions played up to these enough to make you really ponder why this man is so twisted by hatred.
Gerrard McArthur plays Claggart, and strongly implies the characters sadism and confusing motives in his performance. However, prowling across the stage with his whipping rod, I couldn’t shake the feeling that McArther often summoned the image of a particularly strict headmaster, always round the corner waiting to catch any wrongdoing.
This might have been down to his costume, which confused me. It sounds nit-picky , but in contrast to the rest of the cast who resembled a highly believable gang of sailors, McArthur, clad in black shirt and trousers, looked bizarrely like a stage hand who had been sent on last minute. Very strange. Particularly in comparison to the rest of the costume and set design, which was beautifully impressive. Credit here goes to Nicolai Hart-Hansen
There were clearly many moments of directorial flair from Seb Harcombe in this production. The music choices and singing throughout made for a very powerful atmosphere and the set was resourcefully used.
The whole cast is strong, and I really enjoyed the ensemble and camaraderie of the crew members. Although I did feel that across the board diction needed to be worked on. I often lost the ends of sentences, particularly with of the mix of heavy regional accents. I thought that Iain Batchelor stood out as the fiery Welshman, Jenkins.
Captain Vere (Luke Courtier) , however, for me, was a little underwhelming. The relationship between Billy and Claggart which forms the heart of the play, as far as I can tell, is supposed to be more of a triangle, with Captain Vere making up the third side. He is torn between affection for Billy, and obeying the law as the play comes to its climax. Vere has been often read as a Pontius Pilate figure, and his motives and accountability hotly debated. I felt that this aspect of the story was a little under-stressed.
All in all, a solid and touching adaption of Herman Melville’s famous sea-yearn.
Billy Budd is playing at Southwark Playhouse until 10 August . For more information and tickets, see the Southwark Playhouse Theatre website.