Ahab's Daughter

Lisa Keogh's deftly written, emotionally fluent account of what happened to Captain Ahab's family after Moby-Dick

After an impressive inaugural performance with Wireless Mystery Theatre’s Streets, Literary Lunchtimes at the Ulster Hall returns with a rehearsed reading of Lisa Keogh’s Ahab’s Daughter.

The eponymous daughter is Atha, in a wary, hopeful turn by Mary Frances Doherty. She was born as her father, the infamous Ahab from Moby-Dick, met his end at the flukes of his nemesis.

Despite her rejection of his legacy – insisting ‘God is my only father’ - Atha has grown up surrounded by the widows, parents, children and sweethearts of the men who died with him on the Pequod.

‘Hard as whalebone,’ her mother, played by The Shore’s Maggie Cronin, describes her contemptuously. ‘More pious than Christ.’

Faced every day with the price of being a whaler’s wife, Atha has sworn never to marry a sea-faring man. Nantucket, desolate and tradition soaked, is no place to find anything else. Despite all her prayers for a shopkeeper or a shepherd as a husband, Atha falls in love with a whaler.

A whaler who seems willing to give up the sea for her, but Jareb is also a part of Ahab’s legacy. His father died on the Peqoud.

Promises and made and broken, lives are lost and the ghosts left in the white whale’s wake continue to trouble Atha’s life.

It turns out that the Group Space at the Ulster Hall is the perfect setting for Keogh’s play. The high balcony overlooking the room is the perfect Widow’s Walk for Maggie Cronin’s mother to brood over proceedings. The acoustics worked well up there too, her prideful, angry dialogue carrying easily through the room.

Unfortunately, when the characters descended from their perch it wasn’t always quite so clear. A few lines were lost to mumbling, but it was nothing vital to understanding where the play was going. Other than that, there really are few flaws in this perceptively written and well-staged drama.

It is a rehearsed reading, not a fully staged performance, but the actors inhabit their characters skins so confidently the lack is inconsequential. This is usually the point to trot out ‘especially deserving of mention were’, but the cast all shine in different ways.

Mary Frances Doherty moves imperceptibly but unmistakably with Atha from 17 to maturity. Doherty manages to catch the emotion roiling under that Atha’ still, pious façade with an uplifted chin or cracked voice. Her reserved performance gives Atha’s moments of open emotion – flashes of grief, love and fury – all the more impact.

Jason McLoughlin has been described as ‘young for the part’. Nevertheless, he catches the braggadocio and body language of whaler Jareb, as well as the tender side he shows ‘his pretty pear’. (Due to the aforementioned acoustic issues, I did think he was calling her a ‘pretty bear’ for a while.)

Yet there is a darker side to Jareb. Like Ahab, he is obsessed with the idea of revenge against the white whale.

Unfortunately it is difficult to sympathise with him. Ahab was a tragic character, not a straightforwardly heroic one. His great quest to kill the white whale was always a fool’s one. So there was no point at which Jareb taking up Ahab’s hunt seemed noble or admirable.

Matt Faris, the harpooner who thinks himself a ghost, is a far more relatable character. He is the bedrock to Atha and Jareb's storm, counselling patience and tolerance. The tragedy in his own past gives him both wisdom and the ability to step across and talk to the ghosts left on Nantucket. Steady and mild, the one time he raises his voice is anger is one of the most immediately powerful in the play.

Throughout, however, it is Bess, Atha’s mother, Ahab’s wife, though who steals the stage whenever she appears. Half-unhinged by the death of the husband she hated, Bess is by turns sly and enraged. While she curses Atha for being born, she sends the son she dotes on to hunt the whale that killed her husband.

There is nothing overt or over-done about her performance, Cronin never loses the humanity under the disturbance of Bess’ mind. When she does lose control – wailing from the widow’s walk or savaging her daughter – it is an abrupt thing. As if Bess is packed so full of anger that she can’t help it spilling over sometimes.

Keogh, who directed as well as wrote the piece, made full use of the space available. Rather than sitting still as they read, the actors roamed the stage and acted out their parts. The choreography of steps effectively mapped in the outline of the character’s world. The audience might not see it, but it was there all the same.

There were a few places where the cast's commitment to the idea of the space went a little slack. In one scene a corpse, represented by a tangle of cloth, was carried about the stage. The idea was effective, but in practice they treated the ‘corpse’ like cloth. It was slightly surreal to see them talking so gravely of the dead, while carrying them around balled up in one hand.

On the whole though, this was a memorable debut for the play. One that left me hoping to see it in a fully staged version one of these days. 

The next Literary Lunchtime event is Jennifer Johnston reading from her new novel Shadowstory on March 28.