Lisa Keogh Reimagines Moby-Dick

The story that Herman Melville left untold comes to life at the Ulster Hall

'Call me Atha.' In Moby-Dick, the classic tale of obsession and revenge, author Herman Melville gives scant page-space to the monomaniacal Captain Ahab's family. A 'girl-wife' and a young son, both unnamed, serve as just one more thing abandoned to the hunt.

In Ahab's Daughter, the next Literary Lunchtime rehearsed reading at the Ulster Hall, writer Lisa Keogh, a graduate of Queen's University's PhD in creative writing, posits the existence of another child. Atha is, as the title of the piece suggests, the infamous captain's second offspring and only daughter.

Moby-Dick is, in many ways, a determinedly male story about a very male milieu. By all accounts, Melville even aimed at a male audience. When the book came out he told a female acquaintance, Sarah Moorewood, 'Don't you read it when it does come out, because it is by no means a sort of book for you.'.

That sort of focus leaves blanks in a story and Keogh is not the first writer to try and spin the distaff side of the tale. Most writers, however, are attracted to the unnamed widow back in Nantucket. Yet feuds are passed down through the generations, not across marital lines. It is Atha, or her brother, who will be heir to their father's legacy.

Ahab's Daughter, then, is about Atha trying to put her ghosts to bed: all the issues that have been passed down by her mother, who was left unhinged by Ahab's death, and how she feels about Nantucket, a little island steeped in whaling culture.

Keogh spent a 'long time thinking' about Ahab's Daughter. The idea first came to her nine years ago when she was travelling around Italy with Moby-Dick in her luggage. Over the last few years, she has worked on the play as part of her PhD, under the tutelage of Glenn Patterson and Daragh Carville.

Although the Literary Lunchtimes Rehearsed Reading is the play's stage debut, Keogh has long had her own idea of potential casting. Her first pick to play Atha's mother was Maggie Cronin, who stars in Terry George's the Oscar-nominated short The Shore. A writer as well as an actor, Cronin studied creative writing at Queen's at the same time as Keogh. 'I worked with her on a couple of things then,' Keogh recalls. 'And I cast her straight off the bat.'

Other actors cast include Mary Frances Doherty as Atha ('She brings a great energy'); Jason McLoughlin as the love interest with a dark secret ('He is a little young for the part, but just so good'); Matt Farris as an American harpooner ('Everyone else is Northern Irish, so his accent underlines the character's otherness'); and Stephen Coulter as Atha's older brother ('He really works for the part').

Although a rehearsed reading, the performance will be 'as visually interesting as possible'. Rather than sitting down to read the script, the black-clad cast will move with the action. Ulimately Keogh would have liked to add more to the performance – costumes and period details – 'but we only had so much time'.

Keogh admits that, having had Ahab's Daughter in her head for so long, she enjoyed being wholly in charge of its first outing. But then she is an artist of many talents. In addition to producing last year's Mute, which was shown at the Galway Film Festival, Keogh is currently work as writer/director on a short film with Screen NI's Short Steps Development Programme.

Taking the Boat follows two women – one from Dublin and one from Belfast – on the ferry ride to Glasgow. In that 'great euphemistic way' says Keogh, they have gotten themselves into trouble. 'It's about moments of human kindness.'

The Short Steps scheme progresses in stages, with 12 participants eventually whittled down to four. The final four films will then go into production. Keogh will discover if Taking the Boat made the first cut on the same day as Ahab's Daughter premieres.

With all these plays about ships, it is perhaps surprising that Keogh hasn't tapped into the sea-faring zeitgeist of the moment: the Titanic. Although she agrees that there are 'some really interesting works out there', she argues that it can be difficult to find a new angle.

'There is a tangential link, though,' she says with a shrug. 'William McQuitty, who directed A Night to Remember, has a fund at Queen's. It paid for me to go to Nantucket and research Ahab's Daughter.'

For now, that is the closest Keogh plans to get to a Titanic play. There are plenty of other things to occupy her. Keogh hopes that the Rehearsed Reading will 'kick-start' something for Ahab's Daughter, perhaps leading to a fully fledged production. But on which stage?

Keogh's eyes widden. 'I have seen the stage at the Lyric,' she beams. 'It's a beautiful space, but I always loved the ethos of OMAC and now the MAC is almost open. We have so many choices now. It is great, and can only improve our already vibrant theatre scene.'

Ahab's Daughter can be seen at the Ulster Hall on February 22 as part of Literary Lunchtimes.