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Billy Budd Sailor
Published on Wednesday, 11 May 2011

4 stars

Theatre North
14-15, 21-22, 28-29 May, 3:00pm-4:00pm, 6:30pm-7:30pm, 9:00pm-10:00pm; 8-10, 12-13, 19-20, 26-27 May, 6:30pm-7:30pm, 9:00pm-10:00pm
Reviewed by Mathilda Gregory

 Suitable for age 18+ only.
 Warning: Contains flashing lights.
 World Premiere.

Theatre North's Billy Budd, Sailor is ambitious in its intimacy. The solo actor tells the second most well-known Herman Melville tale while naked in the bath, for an audience of 6 people, squeezed into the real smallest room in a real house. It's both strange and familiar seeing a stranger bathing, being invited into the most private of spaces.

The story of Billy Budd was published after Melville's death, and the telling of it had obsessed him for years. It deals with good and evil, legal procedures and justice, and male beauty; it follows the life of Billy Budd, the handsome sailor, who is praised for his combination of strength and beauty and compared to Hercules and Adam. Billy's downfall – at the hands of those who wish him ill for no clear reason – could be spurred by sociopathy or frustrated desire.

Theatre North have, I think, decided on the latter, and the focus here is on the homoerotic themes of the tragic tale. The programme for the show talks about the married Melville's complex relationship with Nathaniel Hawthorn, who he dedicated Moby Dick to, and suggests that it was this relationship (as well as Melville's time working at sea) that inspired Billy Budd.

The show itself brings various trappings of contemporary gay culture to the fore, as the bather, whilst narrating Billy Budd's story, invites us to view his own secrets. He opens a locked bag and brings out items that represent his own, presumably closeted, life. The connection would appear to be that even today, being a gay man is still something that can bring stigma and shame – hence the need to keep parts of oneself hidden, everywhere but in the private space of the bathroom.

I'm not sure this works. It was like watching two stories that had themes in common, but not quite enough to link them together. The question to ask with these site-specific pieces set in off-beat locations is whether the oddity and inventiveness add to the story. In this case, though the performance was excellent and the adaptation of the text very crisp and succinctly done, it felt a little gimmicky – in a way that, in the end, detracted from the effect of the whole.

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