Good things — no, let’s say great ones — seem to be coming in small packages with amazing regularity these days from the Royal Court Theater Upstairs, a studio venue seating fewer than 100 people. Hot on the heels of “Terrorism,” the Russian import that rocked spectators with the unnerving implication that the truly destructive weapons are the ones ordinary humans turn daily on one another, comes “Under the Whaleback,” an enigmatically titled play of exhilarating power. As the more nautically minded may know, the “whaleback” refers to the curved deck at a ship’s bow, in this case underneath which three generations of fishermen are having a tempestuous time of it at sea, not to mention within their own storm-tossed lives.
But Richard Bean’s play doesn’t need the glossary provided to suck an audience into its unfamiliar milieu. How many times in the theater is one granted empathic access to an entirely “other” world that both teaches us something and delivers an affective blow? I’ve seen more polemical plays about class, and far more full-on treatments of familial dysfunction and the ambivalent legacy left by Britain’s so-called “heritage” industry (that second issue fueled Tim Firth’s “The Safari Party,” most recently). Bean folds all these concerns and more into a play that resonates on so many levels that the opening night audience sat stunned: In the theater, sometimes a charged silence is the greatest honor of all.
The play is set across three time periods and as many trawlers in the English city of Hull, the northern port community. The play begins in 1965 as teenager Darrell (Iain McKee) is adjusting to life aboard a ship called the Kingston Jet as the new “snacker” or apprentice trawlerman — not to the mention to the news that Cassidy (Alan Williams), the boozy and expletive-prone middle-aged deckhand with whom 17-year-old “Daz” finds himself, is in fact the boy’s father.
The next scene picks up Darrell seven years later, married at age 24 and attempting to read “Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man,” in keeping with the name of his then-ship, the James Joyce. (The shipping industry’s fondness for naming boats after famous authors leads to the best Virginia Woolf joke I have heard in years.)
Some fierce weather splinters the Joyce, leaving several of its crew dead and a vaguely seasick audience staggering into the intermission. Come the second act and third scene, and Darrell in 2002 is presiding over yet a third ship, the Arctic Kestrel, the onetime “deckie” now a museum curator of sorts. (With several in the ace company multiply-cast, the role is played by Williams, who portrayed Darrell’s father, Cassidy, at the start).
This time around, it isn’t the ship’s lurching about that leaves a spectator queasy, but the score-settling prompted by the arrival of Pat (Matthew Dunster), a disturbed youngster who has long nursed a misapprehension of the circumstances of his father’s death, which the younger Darrell lived to see. Where, then, does one look for “truth” amid an environment that wants to lionize the same drunkard, Cassidy, whose desperation — clearly evidenced in the first act — led him to his doom? Before we have even realized it, Bean has set up a study in parallel legacies between fathers and sons alongside a subtly consistent social critique in which the issue of a “rigged pack” reverberates in ways that cannot be revealed here.
“Under the Whaleback” is destined to be performed frequently, including outside of London by theater companies confident enough to give the tricky Hull accent a go. (Divest the play of its specific locale, and you lose much of its point.) I’m not sure, however, that I would rush to see it deprived of a (mostly male) cast who so completely inhabit their roles that one is startled in those rare moments when the artifice of the theater intrudes and a documentary-like verismo — enhanced by Juliam McGowan’s set — momentarily disappears from view. (It’s hardly Dunster’s fault, for instance, if the agitated Pat reveals an author getting carried away by his character.)
Last year at the Royal Court, director Richard Wilson brought the most acutely enquiring eye on New York circa 9/11 in his world preem production of Christopher Shinn’s “Where Do We Live,” and in a wild geographical about-face, Wilson evinces the same skill and compassion here. I don’t know how much time he has spent on North Hull estates discussing creosote tins and using words like “gorra” and “up the duff.” But in seamless conjunction with his author, Wilson gives this most different of worlds a startling immediacy, which is another way of saying that “Under the Whaleback” leaves you over the moon.