It’s had a troubled history, but with an ambitious new production of Moby Dick about to be staged in Leeds Dock the future finally looks bright. Chris Bond reports.
ALAN Lane is a happy man.
He’s standing triumphantly on top of a flotilla at Leeds Dock looking like a pirate who’s just discovered a treasure chest full of gold.
Back on dry land Slung Low’s artistic director explains the reason for his excitement. The theatre company is staging a production of The White Whale - a modern retelling of Herman Melville’s nautical classic Moby Dick - on the Leeds Liverpool Canal next month, and he’s just got the floating stage to work. “Making something that looks really good but can also move the way we want it to has been a real challenge.
“This thing has to turn and look good turning. Each scene comes at you from a slightly different angle because the boat has to move into position and we hadn’t been able to move it into position, until now,” he says, with a mixture of joy and relief.
The story is told through a fire-lit performance featuring a seven-strong cast with all the action taking place on boats and floating platforms on the water. Audiences watching from the canalside will each be given a set of headphones so they can listen to the story.
“It’s a bit like listening to a radio play, a bit like watching a film and a play all mixed together,” says Lane.
There are 10 evening performances in total and most of the tickets, which are free, have already been snapped up. “There’s a growing appetite nationally for this kind of free spectacle with a good story at its heart. So the idea that we will give all 3,500 tickets away free has been a key part of this.”
The Leeds-based company have carved out an impressive reputation for making innovative, but at the same time popular, theatre. However, this is arguably their biggest logistical challenge to date. “We wanted to set it on a platform that spins and floats and also sinks and bursts into flames, because that’s what happens in the play.”
If that sounds ambitious it’s because it is. “The set weighs more than two tons and it’s got to sink and float, and the sinking is harder than the floating, because once you’ve made it float it’s very hard to make it sink.”
To solve this conundrum they have been using a buoyancy mechanism devised by a team of theatrical engineers from Sheffield-based Pif Paf.
For the past two weeks the cast and crew have been rehearsing and putting the equipment to the test, although they were joined by some unexpected guests. “When we raised the platform on the first morning 40 fish were on the deck, some of them were a foot-and-a-half, and we had to rush on to get them off and back in the water. But they’ve learnt what we’re going to do now and they just swim away.”
The fish aren’t the only ones learning. We might like to think of actors as a bunch of cravat-wearing luvvies, but Lane and co aren’t afraid of getting dirty, or wet, for their art.
“Working in water is hard work, it stinks and it’s tiring but that’s part of the challenge. If it was easy we’d probably let someone else do it.”
As a company they like to try and push the boundaries of theatre. “Last year we did a show in York called Blood and Chocolate which had an army of 180 marching over two miles. Then in Hull a couple of years ago the show started with someone jumping off the top of a building and stopping three storeys from the ground, but this is the first time we’ve done anything on water.”
Not that Lane is daunted by this. “Theatre should be exciting and visceral and a bit dangerous, but that doesn’t mean it has to be reckless.
“There’s a great moment near the end [in The White Whale] when someone takes a marine flare, those things burn at 10,000 degrees, and runs as hard as he can into the water. We were practising this the other day but you do it twice and you really do need a break.”
But Lane doesn’t ask the cast to do anything that he wouldn’t do himself. “Last night we were jumping out of the back of boats and were clambering up the five metre mast,” he says.
“Making theatre is a verb. You have to physically do it. There’s a brilliant team of experts who are makers and construction engineers, but the creative team - the choreographer, composer and sound designer, we’re working on the set.”
Each night they have to sink the boat so that it doesn’t get damaged. “In order to do that someone has to stand on it whilst it goes down and traditionally that’s been my job, although I’m fast approaching the point where our egalitarian principles are seriously under threat,” he says, jokingly.
It is Slung Low’s first major work in its home city - where they have been based for more than a decade. In fact the whole production has drawn on the skills of businesses from across Yorkshire.
It has also received support from Leeds Inspired, the city council’s cultural programme, which has backed the project with a £40,000 grant. “I think Leeds City Council are being unbelievably progressive and brave given the national picture,” says Lane. “They really seem to understand the value and worth that culture can bring economically to a city.”
Slung Low isn’t making any money out of the project which it is hoped will boost visitor numbers to Leeds Dock, which has had something of a troubled history. Formerly known as Clarence Dock, the arrival of the Royal Armouries was supposed to boost a wider renaissance. However, footfall never met predictions and when the Alea casino complex closed 18 months ago, the area took another knock.
Earlier this year, Allied London which owns the site close to the city centre, revealed its own blueprint for the waterfront. As well as attracting businesses into the old casino buildings and creating new public gardens, itsaid it wanted the area to be a venue for entertainment.
“I think there’s still quite a lot of momentum that needs to gather down there,” says Michael Ingall, managing director of Allied London told the Yorkshire Evening Post in February.“It’s quite easy at this stage of any recovery, particularly in the property market, to get ahead of ourselves and I don’t want people to do that.”
However, an ambitious production like The White Whale promises to be is key not only getting people to the dock, but also getting them talking about the area.
“It’s got great potential and we’ve had a lot of support from Allied London and this means we can have this really exciting performance at the heart of an area that needs a hand up.”
As for the forthcoming productions, he says that not even the dreaded weather can dampen his spirits. “In York we were outside and most nights it lashed it down and the show just got better. I think similarly here, if the wind picks up or it rains a bit it will just add to the atmosphere,” he says.
“This is the most challenging thing we’ve ever done. But we strongly believe people want to see something like this that has a story and is about the world we live in. At the same time if you’re a 12 year-old kid you’re going to be like, ‘Oh my god there’s a whale and they’ve just set fire to the boat’ - so if you can do both those things then I think you’re in business.”
The White Whale, at Leeds Dock, runs for 10 nights starting on September 4 and finishing on September 14. To reserve tickets call the Carriageworks box office on 0113 224 3801 or online at www.thewhitewhale.org (NB - the show is not suitable for under 9s).