Billy Budd Sailor
Thursday, 20th September, Byre Theatre
Only a scant cluster of people congregated at the Byre Theatre last Thursday night to watch Martin Lewton’s stage adaptation of Melville’s novella Billy Budd. Yet this did not impair the dramatic experience; on the contrary, the scarce audience contributed to the intimate nature of the performance. A bathtub, candles, rubber ducks, a naked man. This array could easily generate a voyeuristic aura by having the audience observe a bathing and masturbating person, but instead, writer and actor Lewton succeeds in establishing a customary story-telling atmosphere.
It was interesting to note the sharp contrast between the extremely subtle erotic hints of the 19th century prose and the overwhelmingly explicit pornographic symbolism of the 21st century setting. While the narrator, in Melville’s elegant style, recounts a tragic story of an admired male beauty on a battleship, he proceeds to shave his pubic hair, open a gay magazine featuring an article on anal pleasure, and don a cock ring. Most prominent analyses of the novella focus on allegorical interpretations: handsome sailor Billy Budd, press-ganged on board the Bellipotent, is often compared to Christ, or Adam before the fall. Forsaken of speech, the boy is entrapped by a fallen angel, the arms master, Claggart, and ends up on the gallows. So far, only Benjamin Britten and E. M. Forster, in their mutual opera adaptation, came close to addressing the homosexual elements of Melville’s work, allegedly triggered by the latter’s complex feelings towards fellow author Nathaniel Hawthorne. Lewton however decided to fully emphasize the gay subtext of the story, much disclosed in the very obvious double-entendres dispersed throughout the monologue.
Many an unfortunate play has used blatant nakedness for the sole purpose of distancing the audience, then ended up unnecessarily vulgar (such as a recent adaptation of A Midsummer Night’s Dream in the Munich Volkstheater that resembled an orgy in pools of blood). Billy Budd Sailor uses nudity to a greater artistic effect; one does not need to be desensitized by a regular consumption of gay porn to be able to see beyond the shock value and appreciate how physical openness is juxtaposed with suppressed desire. This does not mean that the production was stripped of other concerns: the gradual increase in tension precipitates the subjects of guilt, innate goodness versus innate evil, and truth, inviting the viewer to ponder when exactly the line between narrator and protagonist was erased.
Image by Theatre North