Presented by Dead Puppet Society, Queensland Performing Arts Centre (QPAC) and Brisbane Festival in association with Screen Queensland, Ishmael is a space opera about healing, hope and humanity that aims to bring the backstage onstage and transport the audience to the outer reaches of the solar system. Postponed for 12 months due to COVID-19, this contemporary reimagining of Herman Melville’s Moby Dick has made its world premiere at QPAC as part of Brisbane Festival 2021.
Written, directed and co-designed by David Morton, Ishmael is set in 3022, when humanity has been forced to look off-planet for the resources to survive. The piece condenses Moby Dick’s hundreds of pages into a sharp 85 minutes, touching on the novel’s key plot points and maintaining the core themes in exploring humanity’s relationship with the natural world. Ishmael also makes regular reference to Moby Dick through place and character names, snatches of dialogue and costuming. While the arcs of the three central characters are similar, they do not mirror their literary counterparts exactly.
Ishmael (Ellen Bailey), a young climate refugee from the dead Earth, is desperate for a new life above the clouds and an escape from the consequences of her actions below. She meets Queequeg (Patrick Jhanur), an experimental, artificially intelligent droid trying to make his way off the planet, and together they board the mining vessel MV Pequod, captained by the notorious Captain Ahab (Barbara Lowing). As their mining expedition becomes a dangerous mission in search of Ahab’s lost brother, the three characters are pushed to their limits and find hope, connection and redemption in the vastness of space, with all of the possibilities, terrors and questions that it holds.
Dead Puppet Society drew back the curtain in a literal way with Ishmael, allowing the audience to see the story being woven together in front of their eyes using a blend of traditional theatre, miniatures, camera technology and puppetry. Intricate, detailed models and miniatures were manipulated against green screens and in front of a series of cameras on the side of the stage. This live footage was then projected onto the enormous screen that served as the stage backdrop and, using live compositing technology, combined with animations and effects. Lights mounted on a frame around these side-stage setups added further detail to the projected settings and storytelling, and all of this hands-on, real-time creation was visible to the audience.
All of the action in Ishmael, from the acting to the integration of miniatures and cameras, was carried out by a talented cast of three, with additional voiceover work by Anthony Standish. Ellen Bailey played the titular role with emotional intensity and volatility, which was balanced against the grounded energy that Patrick Jhanur brought to the character of Queequeg. Unlike her literary namesake, Bailey’s Ishmael was combative and self-involved. Barbara Lowing’s Ahab was self-assured, but more world-weary than deranged, although her addressing of Ishmael as ‘sweet cheeks’ came to feel repetitive. Lowing also played a number of minor characters and brought a distinct embodiment to each of them. The fast-paced action and rising tension were masterfully handled, as was the physical theatre, which included fight choreography and manoeuvring of puppets. Bailey and Jhanur, especially, built the tension between their characters so intensely and expertly that the culmination of this elicited a spontaneous cheer and applause from members of the audience. In addition to their excellent character performances, the cast arranged the props, puppets, models and cameras with smoothness and precision, actively building the world that their characters inhabited.
Sweeping cosmic projections designed by Justin Harrison transported audiences through asteroid swarms and interstellar storms, and lighting design by Christine Felmingham added depth and detail to the settings and onstage action. Montages incorporating music, movement, and miniatures showed off the camera technology and video design, established the tone of life aboard the MV Pequod, and built the trust and playfulness between Ishmael and Queequeg quickly and naturally.
Ishmael leans on science fiction tropes in worldbuilding – for example, the substitution of “Corp” for “God” in exclamations – but doesn’t clutter the story with unnecessary detail or justification. Queequeg’s status as a non-human was quickly established as a reason to be refused work, among other things, although the hostility and disparagement that he faced from Ishmael seemed harsher than from the other characters. In addition to its commentary on environmentalism and collective action, the work also touched on themes of class, capitalism, oppression, trauma and grief.
The catchy original score composed by indie pop musician Bec Sandridge further heightened the energy of the work, but the pumping music occasionally overpowered the voices of the actors. Sound design and music supervision by Tony Brumpton added emotion and atmosphere to the story unfolding onstage, as well as contributing to furthering the plot. Props co-designed by Jennifer Livingstone and costume design by Nathalie Ryner added to the worldbuilding and individual characters in subtle ways, although the lighting incorporated into Queequeg’s costume drew the eye when he was “off” stage engaging with the miniatures or other props. A few key set pieces served many different functions and were moved quickly and smoothly across the stage.
Packed with action and emotion, Ishmael fuses ambitious technology with live performance to immerse audiences in a new kind of theatrical storytelling, and is an ever-timely reminder to let our hope and humanity lead us through the dark.
Ishmael plays at the Cremorne Theatre, QPAC as part of Brisbane Festival until 18 September and is recommended for audiences aged 12+. It will play at Sydney Opera House in 2023.