Ustinov Studio, Theatre Royal Bath – until 2 June 2018
Charlie weighs 40 stone (or 250kg) and his blood pressure is 238/134. He’s not just morbidly obese, this play finds him on the very precipice of death – confined by his bulk to his Idaho apartment, where he earns a modest living teaching English Literature to students via internet audio broadcast.
The two-hour (no interval) play never leaves Charlie’s sometimes squalid front room. He can move, just, from his sofa, but his bulk has him beached in what is perhaps the most obtuse reference to the play’s title, though we learn more of his fascination with the poetry of Herman Melville’s Moby Dick as the cetacean references emerge in Samuel D. Hunter’s text.
A massive man in a tiny town, Charlie is literally eking out his existence, breath by gasping breath. However, it is in Shuler Hensley’s portrayal of desperately damaged humanity that we catch a glimpse of acting greatness. Simply put, Hensley’s achievement is as enormous as the character he portrays. Hensley starts by being naturally of large frame and readers may recall his Olivier-winning turn as the hulking, menacing Jud in Trevor Nunn’s Oklahoma! at the National Theatre 20 years ago, while only last year he returned to London to reprise his creation of The Monster in Young Frankenstein. Here, however, with the help of well-crafted prosthetics, he is brilliantly, tragically ballooned.
But it is so much more than the costuming that convinces us of Charlie’s plight. Hensley captures the essence of a man who is as desperate for human company as he is for the very air he breathes. He fights to move, to breathe – even picking up his cell phone is beyond him without the help of a littler-picker’s extended claw such is his immobility. In a role that sees him actively onstage for virtually the entire production, Hensley’s heartbreakingly perceptive interpretation of a living nightmare is a tour de force.
Hunter’s narrative introduces us to Charlie’s daughter Ellie, his friend and unpaid carer Liz, along with his ex-wife Mary. Intriguingly, there’s a strong Mormon theme to the story too, Idaho being a state where that faith’s influence is pervasive and strong. Oscar Batterham puts in a well-constructed turn as Elder Thomas, but this is no musical-comedy Book Of Mormon. Avoiding spoilers, the final act quite simply crucifies the central tenets of the Mormon’s interpretation of Christian values.
The cast’s women are all excellent in the parts they play in Charlie’s tragedy. Ruth Gemmell’s Liz showing an almost unconditional love for Charlie and despairing at the inexorable, inevitable path he is choosing towards his own demise. Teresa Banham is Mary, a woman who is everything that Charlie isn’t: tanned, coiffed, assured – and also present in Ellie’s life. Hers is a no-nonsense ex-spouse, who in experiencing the end of her marriage some 15 years earlier when Charlie revealed his homosexuality, has grown the carapace of a woman who has seen, and lived through, it all.
But perhaps some of the most scorching supporting work on stage comes from Rosie Sheehy as Ellie. Savvy, whip-sharp and disaffected – we learn that her online postings are vitriolic – she returns to her estranged father for help with the essays that she is flunking at school and is persuaded to remain in contact with him in the expectation of inheriting his bank balance of $100,000. King Lear famously said “how sharper than a serpent’s tooth it is to have a thankless child” and when Ellie says to Charlie that “just being around you is disgusting”, our hearts break for her father. Late in the narrative however, there is a moment when Charlie discerns through Ellie’s actions that rather than being hateful, she has in fact bestowed a deep kindness upon the troubled Elder Thomas. Hensley and Hunter create an instant that is achingly perceptive in its understanding of Charlie’s love for his daughter.
There’s a lot to process in The Whale, sometimes too much and a half-way respite for a gin and tonic would be appreciated (even Arthur Miller gave his plays an interval). But make no mistake – this is masterful modern drama. The UK Theatre Awards need to head to Bath pronto, for Shuler Hensley giving what is likely to be the most outstanding performance to be seen in this country this year.