BBC Radio 4, 17-24 October 2010
The adapter Steph Penney commented on the Radio 4 website that Moby Dick was one of the strangest books she had ever read; it has very little narrative, character-development or dramatic conflict, yet it still holds the attention throughout its five-hundred-plus pages.
Perhaps it's the very lack of what we ordinarily expect from a novel that makes it so powerful. This is what emerged from Penney's adaptation which continually aroused our expectations, only to frustrate them again soon afterwards. In the first episode (of two), it seemed as if we were listening to a picaresque tale recounted by the older Ishmael (Trevor White), of the crew of the Pequod, including Ishmael as a young man (P. J. Brennan), going in search of the great white whale. Yet the older Ishmael's narrative was repeatedly interrupted: sometimes other characters told their own stories; on other occasions Ishmael's speeches were drowned out by the roar of the waves crashing against the boat; while in episode two the narrative was almost entirely taken over by Captain Ahab (Garrick Hagon) explaining his obsessive desire to pursue Moby Dick.
Director Kate McAll drew an explicit link between the fractured narrative and the characters involved in it. Both Ahab and Starbuck (Richard Laing) had lost limbs as a result of previous whaling expeditions; they were in a sense 'imperfect' human beings surviving as best could they in a hostile world. Similarly we were having to cope with an imperfect narrative, as the characters competed with one another for our attention.
The sense of disjointedness also affected our perception of the novel's thematic aspects. Superficially it seemed as if the tale was a straightforward chronicle of Ahab selling his soul to the Devil in pursuit of Moby Dick. He takes his crew on a voyage into hell - both literal and physical - which was suggested in this production by discordant music in the background, as the crew desperately tried to keep the Pequod afloat. On the other hand many of the characters comments about their situation (for example, "God is against thee") were addressed direct to listeners in asides, not to one another. We were being invited to share their experiences and thereby understand how Moby Dick cannot be reduced to a series of discrete themes. Rather the adaptation treated the novel as a stream-of-consciousness epic, in which the characters' reactions (and our reactions to such responses) repeatedly changed, as they encountered various obstacles on their ill-fated voyage.
With this knowledge in mind, we could not help thinking that the supposed happy ending (where the older Ishmael recalled Ahab's condemnation to perpetual damnation, while congratulating himself on his supposed good fortune in surviving the expedition) seemed somehow unsatisfactory. He tried and failed to convince us that Moby Dick was a linear narrative of Christianity in which the good survived and the bad were destroyed, while Moby Dick was the sacrifical victim. This was palpably untrue: the only way to understand the adaptation was to approach it as a series of contradictory incidents that subverted any attempt to impose any kind of thematic order on the narrative.