By Richard Bean
Directed by Eddie Knight
With Dion Mills, David Whiteley, Richard Cawthorne, Don Halbert, Vincent Miller & Peter Stratford
Under The Whaleback (2/6/2004 – 27/6/2004) –Chris Boyd, Herald Sun 08/06/04
Richard Bean’s play launches a harpoon at the mythology of the sailor’s life. And it pierces deep into the belly of the beast.
In Bean’s play, fishing is still a vocation – a calling – but it’s one that stops men from having to make adult choices about how to live and what to do.
Fishing is a macho priesthood, if you like. Difficult, but safe. Salt is in the blood and is passed on, generation after generation.
One boy meets his estranged father by accident in the first scene, set in 1965.
Thirty-seven years later, in the last scene, another boy hunts down the truth about his father. He has inherited the dead man’s madness, just as the other boy inherited colourblindness.
As finely acted as this Red Stitch production is, Bean’s words never come to dramatic life. He has written a screenplay, perhaps a radio play, and not a particularly interesting one.
The script presents enormous challenges for cast and crew. We have to imagine salt spray and heaving oceans and the scuttling of a huge boat in icy seas. We have to believe the violence and blood.
The production is let down by the sound, which fails to nail us.
Seeing members of this tireless ensemble tackling a variety of roles – often against type – is one of the great pleasures of coming to see Red Stitch.
Here yet again David Whiteley does something extraordinary in a tiny role.
And guest actor Peter Stratford is marvellous and authentic as the senior crewman in the middle scene.
Not for the squeamish.
Helen Thomson,The Age 06/06/04
The tiny cabin of the theatre that houses Red Stitch has never been put to better use than in this claustrophobic recreation of the inside of a North Sea fishing trawler. “Under the whaleback” refers to the crew’s living quarters where they are confined for long periods of the long, dangerous voyage in search of cod.
Richard Bean’s play, which had its first performance at London’s Royal Court Theatre last year, is a powerful piece of writing, and this production deserves the highest praise. The second of its three acts, in particular, recreates the terror of a storm at sea and a sinking ship with an authenticity that could induce a panic attack in audience members.
Each of the acts contains violence, often unexpected. In the first, in 1965, it is just an overheard description of a pointless act of cruelty. Yet the details of this scene are crucial clues to understanding what follows. Why did the larger-than-life Cassidy kill his beloved good-luck dog before sailing? Why does he give his life-saving suit to Darrell, the young rookie he claims is his son?
Seven years later, we hear of Cassidy’s foolhardy death on that voyage, and Darrell is the only crew member in a storm suit when the second sinking occurs. Caught in the terrifying storm, the ice gradually building up on the boat’s superstructure, huge waves battering it like a tree trunk hitting a building, the crew talk of women: whores, wives and daughters.
That conversation haunts the third act, in 2002, when a different trawler has become a theme-park artefact, and Darrell its custodian. The disappearance of a 400-year-old way of life, one that seems to have been unbelievably dangerous, has left an angry void in the young men who would once have been its heirs.
Once again, shocking violence occurs, this time not deadly but resolved when the mysterious threads of the stories of the dead men are unravelled at last.
There are some marvellous performances: Richard Cawthorne as the younger Darrell; Don Halbert as Cassidy and the older Darrell (left); Vince Miller as Norman and Pat (right); Dion Mills as Roc; Peter Stratford in a beautiful vignette as Bill. All give this play about masculinity an authenticity that is totally absorbing.
Peter Stratford and Richard Cawthorne in Under the Whaleback. Picture: Jodie Hutchinson.