La Baleine Blanche: Moby Dick…en français!

By Emma Campbell

The French language is a beautiful and captivating one. For those of us here in Canada, it is also a staple of Montreal living. Everywhere you go there’s a “bonjour” or a “merci,” which is why French 1 and Conversational French both count as COR credits. It’s a real part of the culture. Therefore, when the Conversational French class got the opportunity to go to a French stage version of Moby Dick, we took it as a chance to really get immersed in the language.

Now, I’m not claiming to be the best at French. It can definitely be a struggle. I freeze up when people ask me questions, and sometimes it’s tough just to squeak out a “merci” or a “oui.” That being said, I really enjoyed the French theater experience!

We arrived at the theater on Saint-Catherine Street at around 4:30 for the last matinee screening, not really knowing what to expect. After a few reminders about homework from our professor and some idle conversation, we took our seats in the upper balcony. From here, we had a decent view of the action.

The stage was rugged, but tasteful. The floor was made of plywood, and a smoky, dusty set made for a dull, sepia-tinged lighting. Their only real set piece was a huge, moving, ship. Or rather, half of one. The front of the set piece had a spot for a mast, a door that looked like it led into the captain’s quarters, steps up to an upper deck, and some intense, practical rigging. Behind the upper deck, a massive, slanted piece of wood jutted out diagonally and spanned from the top of the mast to the bottom of the back of the set piece. The reason for this strange, large, wooden slab remained unknown until halfway through the play, when the set piece turned around and it was revealed to represent the backs of the two whales in the play.

This setup doesn’t sound like much, but that one set piece was remarkably versatile. Every actor in the play was a trained acrobat. They scampered up rigging and tiny ladders, rode inside barrels like carnival clowns, and were an overall joy to watch. They had many stage tricks they employed to give the illusion of being on the sea that were really quite ingenious. For instance, they turned two barrels on their sides and put planks on them, then got on and see-sawed them while standing. When they did, it looked just like they were riding on the waves of the sea, and the effect they were looking for–taking two dinghies out to harpoon the whale–was accomplished with some very simple props. These moments of theatrical ingenuity were my favorite parts of the performance.

The music, as well, was phenomenal. The live band was almost a set piece in itself, nestled back in the far right of the stage. The singer, a master of her trade, was able to reproduce the sounds of whale song, as well as tasteful and ambient vocalizing in the less dramatic scenes. In addition, she played many of the percussion instruments. She was accompanied by three other musicians, who were handy with familiar instruments (like guitar and drums) as well as strange ones. The music was one of the best parts of the show, and suited the mood perfectly.

As for the actual performances, I confess to not being able to understand too much of the dialogue. There were times when the characters would go off on heartfelt monologues, sometimes talking very fast or in gruff, indistinguishable voices. These were the parts of the play I lost track of, and much of the intellectual grandeur of Moby Dick no doubt passed me by. In fact, I really wish I’d read the book–or at least the cliff notes–before diving straight in (so to speak).

That being said, I could still understand the basic plot, even if I couldn’t decipher all the dialogue. Ishmael, a man looking for adventure, signs up to go on a whaling ship with a bunch of weird, crazy people, chief among them Captain Ahab. The only other somewhat sane person on the ship is co-captain Starbuck, who, from what I could see, was a sort of supervisor trying to make sure the whaling ship brought back some good profit. Also on the crew was a tattooed, harpoon-happy lunatic, a mute bilge rat constantly picked on by the rest of the crew, and a chubby, sly first mate. Together, they made for an interesting cast of character to watch, even if I did draw the conclusion they were all insane by the end of the play. Together, these misfits set out to hunt whales, or rather, one whale–la baleine blanche–Moby Dick. So obsessed with hunting Moby Dick is Captain Ahab that, when the crew catches a different whale and strips it for oil, Ahab puts holes in the barrels so they won’t return to shore yet. The play tells the story of where Ahab’s obsession brings him and his crew, and pits man versus nature in a dramatic and pitiless sense.

The total run time of the show ended up being about 2 and a half hours including intermission, and overall I say it was worth the trip. I have a lot of respect for the actors, the set design, and the music. They all made the experience enjoyable even for someone who didn’t understand all the dialogue. And that’s pretty impressive! In fact, I’d go as far as to say all of us who went had a whale of a time.