Herman Melville’s novella Billy Budd is a salty tale of skulduggery and rough justice set on the high seas at the turn of the 19h century. This adaptation by secret/heart updates the action and sets its all-male crew stewing in a tin can in the tropics, where the struggle for supremacy is only ever going to boil over into mutinous violence. The sweltering, claustrophobic atmosphere is well rendered via the use of a small back-room auditorium with no air conditioning in the new Southwark Playhouse – Bikram theatre if you will. It makes for an intense two hours.
Billy Budd is a simple soul with a pretty face said to have a calming effect on his fellow sailors. He is soon poached by the navy for duty on the HMS Indomitable and his powers are put to the test among a crew itching to teach their sadistic masters a lesson. Budd wins over the grunts but his naive charm only riles up the predatory petty officer Claggert, setting up an inevitable showdown between noble innocence and cynical cruelty. Charlie Archer and Gerrard McArthur give compelling performances in the two lead roles, transmitting the two different approaches to life and a growing sense of psychological damage as their strange duel deepens.
The supporting characters are not all so subtly-drawn but together they do feel like a crew whose lives and well-being depend on each other. Iain Bachelor’s mad, macho Jenkins is a stand-out.
The semi-Shakespearean dialogue – taken from the 1962 film rather than the book – is as rich as whale fat, though perhaps it could have done with a trim before coming to the stage. There is a sense that each scene goes on just a little too long, which adds up over the length of the play and ultimately undermines the tragic third act. Static direction and a gloopy ambient soundscape are also problematic – effective at first in evoking the oppressive tension, they add to the sense of exhaustion and by the end we are left to think that maybe the dead seamen in the play are better off than the living.
Billy Budd runs at Southwark Playhouse until 10 August 2013. Tickets £16.