Ishmael – Creating A Space Saga For The Stage

  • Written by 
  • Friday, 27 August 2021 09:57
Published in Arts  
'Ishmael' 'Ishmael' Image © Dean Hanson

It’s a retelling of Herman Melville’s ‘Moby Dick’ like none before it.


As part of this year’s Brisbane Festival, Dead Puppet Society present ‘Ishmael’, an adaptation of the classic novel which, in looking at technologies and socio-political themes of our past, present, and future, looks to take the characters – and audience – on an epic adventure.

“Mostly the adaptation is picking up the core thematic in ‘Moby Dick’ about humankind’s relationship with the natural world,” says David Morton, the production’s writer, director, and co-designer. “Particularly around the natural world being for us this limitless resource that can be exploited for all time and will never run out because it’s just so big it defies comprehension.”

‘Ishmael’ picks up a couple of hundred years since that book was read, a space odyssey that looks at how our relationship with earth has changed significantly. “We’ve gone ‘let’s look forward to a future where we keep going as we’re going’,” David says. “’How can we frame these things of environmental exploitation and human survival?’”

Ishmael DavidMorton
David Morton

Much of Dead Puppet Society’s work presents ideas of a character coming of age, yet for ‘Ishmael’, because the titular character in the original source material was a person in search of meaning and escape, David and company have been able to create a story that is humanist in nature and packs a proactive and optimistic punch. “Where we really hone in is we often take characters from positions of a lack of understanding or a negative world view and we try and say, ‘No, there is hope, we’ve just got to stick together’. That comes across in the blueprint of our work.”

Delivered using a variety of intricate mediums, ‘Ishmael’ looks to the past and future to tell a story of many forms. “That was one of the reasons we were attracted to this source material,” David explains. “’Moby Dick’ is one of those stories that has so many moving parts and is all over the place in terms of its form. Putting something like that on stage is wildly ambitious because we’re not just talking about characters on stage speaking with each other, we’ve got to be able to paint these enormous vistas and actually take the audience on the journey these characters are going.

“For ‘Ishmael’, it’s a space saga in its genre. We started talking of the cool old-school practical effects that used to be used to make the original ‘Star Wars’ and ‘Star Trek’ – tiny models and miniature dioramas had characters green-screened into the imagery – what would that look like for us to build a stage space that allowed us to create these images live in front of an audience?

Ishmael Rehearsal

'Ishmael' rehearsals

“Every set that appears in the story is a tiny diorama about the size of a shoe box, and those line the sides of the stage.

“For the audience to see these, we have cameras that move back and forth in front of the models, that signal then gets taken into a computer and mixed with all this amazing animation content and is then projected onto a seven metre-wide screen which the performers perform in front of.”

David and the rest of the team are essentially presenting an idea of film composition but not only compositing in a digital space, but mixing images between the projected and live space, too. Set to music provided by singer-songwriter Bec Sandridge contributing, David says her style, like no other, complements the visual elements of the show. “She has such a strong voice – she has this amazing range and we just thought it fitted this world beautifully.

“In addition to that, there’s a feeling in a lot of Bec’s work with the use of the synth and some of the stylistic choices she makes that do feel a little like a throwback to previous eras, and that really gelled with us.”

'Ishmael' plays Queensland Performing Arts Centre 3-18 September.

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