BAC (Battersea Arts Centre), London SW11
Opened 27 June, 2003

Five years ago, BAC presented a season which made a nonsense of the phrase "going to see a show". Productions were staged in total blackout, with even the emergency exit signs extinguished. Far from simply being "live radio", the idea proved so fruitful that it has become an ongoing occasional strand in the venue's programming. The latest such offering, The Watery Part Of The World, is presented by the Sound & Fury company, created to focus on the aural aspect of theatre.

A network of ropes just above head height allows the performers to navigate their way around the traverse banks of audience seating and through the narrow gangway between them. It's a cliché that, with enthusiastic actors, front rows may occasionally get hit by flecks of spittle; here, if you sit in the right place, you can feel their breath or the slight change in the air as they move past.

The piece, as its title suggests, is inspired by Moby-Dick, and recounts the tale of a 19th-century whaler's crew before and after a huge sperm whale sinks their vessel and they are cast adrift in the Pacific on the ship's surviving boat. Finally, as rations dwindle, the crew draw lots for the grisliest sacrifice. Melville's novel is one of the great unstageable works of literature (although many, from Orson Welles down, have tried); Mark Espiner's production overcomes the visual obstacles by eliminating them altogether. The mind's eye creates more powerful images, both during the whaling sequences and in post-wreck sections such as a detailed description of the symptoms of increasing dehydration. Gareth Fry's sound design mingles the naturalistic the flapping of ropes and canvas, sounds of ocean with more abstract assemblages sometimes verging on infrasound, so that in moments of frenzied activity in the narrative we feel ourselves in the bowels of some vast infernal engine.

Now and again the utter darkness is briefly relieved as a shadowy face half-looms up to personalise the story. When the lights come properly back up after an hour, the room seems oddly drenched of colour, and it takes an effort of will to stand and leave the space which the performance has, even in blackout, made hyper-real.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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