The jaunty title of Billy Budd may lead one to expect a bracing nautical musical – and there were certainly a few dismayed faces at this [Monday] afternoon’s performance in C too – for the KCS Theatre Company’s adaptation of Herman Melville‘s posthumously published novella is actually a dark and brooding piece of philosophical theatre. This production does not cite an in-house writer, and one assumes that it appropriates the script from Peter Ustinov’s 1962 film version of Billy Budd (which may have been based on a previous stage play). The chief disadvantage of extracting a play from the original novella is that one forsakes the sarcastic artistry of Melville’s narration, but Melville was himself a thoroughly Shakespearean writer, even before he recognised his affinity with Shakespeare, and many of his fictions would have unfolded very smoothly on the boards of the Globe. KCS’ Billy Budd delivers some compelling theatre and oratory, and, like a typical Shakespearean tragedy, it ends up wracked by moral torments.
The whole play is set aboard the HMS Indomitable in the midst of the Napoleonic Wars. The small stage suggests a corner of spray-lashed deck, whilst the audience are themselves cast as the sea. At times, the sailors gaze out abstractedly over their sea, and it was a shame that the audience could not have swayed together, to inspire some authentic scenes of seasickness. I was intending to comment on how effectively this Billy Budd evokes the claustrophobic intimacy aboard an all-male battleship – and the erotic tension between Claggart and Budd is certainly rendered with subtlety and care – but, oh dear, the reason that Billy Budd features an all male cast is that it is produced by Westminster’s Kings College School, which is still a “boys only” institution. One wishes to avoid the obvious stereotypes and jokes, but it remains curious that a production of one of the few works of nineteenth-century American literature to refer openly to homosexuality is staged by a school for boys.
In the Indomitable‘s world of grimly uniform masculinity, the handsome young Billy Budd is, almost by default, left as the woman of the crew – he is, in this respect, rather like the adult who ends up holding the baby. Love aboard the Indomitable is far from wholesome and, at least in Melville’s novella, both Claggart and Captain Vere seem compelled to destroy Budd by a sort of sexually-fed sadism. Their actions communicate an unconscious wish to rape Budd, which is perhaps the only quarter of their sexual desire that can be exerted within the military world of the warship, and the only form of physical male exchange which is acknowledged by their systems of discipline and justice.
Problematically, for the boys’ school, Budd’s beauty and innocence cannot really be acted. James Wood’s Budd is a dopey giant, whose voice and dialogue (incredulous West Country) bear an unfortunate resemblance to those of Sean Astin’s hobbit Sam. Wood’s Budd is a clumsy presence and, even far out to sea, one cannot imagine sailors falling over each other to get their hands on him. Julius Colwyn Foulkes successfully portrays Captain Vere as an anguished paternalist, but his increasing anxiety to be forgiven for Budd’s execution rather spoils the end of the play. Moreover, Budd’s forgiveness itself presents something of an easy ending, and it fails to do justice to how much of a devil Melville really was (his own Vere perishes in agony whilst groaning Budd’s name). Aboard the Indomitable, an officer class who endlessly bicker about regulations and procedure is matched against a hearty mob of ordinary seamen, who are far more indicative of Melville’s America. In this matter, there is little moral ambiguity. These are the mild gripes of a Melville fanboy, however, and, for the general theatregoer KCS’ Billy Budd would probably remain more than shipshape.