No man is an island, but many a man is marooned on one. Charlie’s island is his couch in Idaho, just about buoyant on a sea of abandoned bottles, and with little more than a laptop to save him from total isolation. With his work and relationships folding under his vast and ever-rising weight, Samuel D. Hunter’s The Whale is an odyssey to the very depths of love, loss, and faith.
A titanic, two-hour text with no interval, it’s one that’s alive with intertextuality and intellect. Revelatory in its palpable realism and its revealing plotting, it’s a play that never feels like it’s force-feeding us information from the past, but rather lets it unfold naturally as four visitors – loved ones and lost ones – pass through his living room. Everything bar the undulating waves in the intervening blackouts in Laurence Boswell’s production at Bath’s Ustinov Studio is naturalistic, from Tim Shortall’s dilapidated but detailed apartment set to the perspiration on Charlie’s brow under his ample padding, but those waves allow other whales, of the more emblematic breed, from Melville’s leviathans to the Bible’s behemoths, to bask below the dramatic tide.
The literary – but literal – whales swimming past make the play’s title tough to swallow: is it a – grossly offensive – euphemism for the overweight, does it dehumanise, are we disgusted by the gargantuan? The play confronts our feelings and preconceptions about fatness fiercely but faithfully: Charlie’s estranged, unpredictable, terrifyingly sarcastic child, played with appropriate distaste by Rosie Sheehy, is openly repulsed, whereas a stranger – Oscar Batterham’s masterfully performed sympathetic Mormon on a mission – treats him with delicate tenderness – that is, until provoked into admitting his own well-disguised disgust. Charlie’s one lifeline is Liz, Ruth Gemmell’s fiercely frustrated but deeply frightened nurse, who even as his greatest defender is delivering Dr. Pepper to his fridge and edging him further and further to his inevitable death. These are complicated domestic politics, but they’re diplomatically explored, openly criticised, and respectfully performed.
In the week we pass with Charlie, our feelings rise and fall with the waves: the wonderfully funny writing keeps us afloat, but every so often it forces us under the surface with devastating effect. Shuler Hensley is a heartfelt, hugely charming Charlie, and it’s in his unshakeable command of Hunter’s script that he can shake us with only a whisper of the inescapable: ‘I’m dying, Mary’, he confesses to his worried ex-wife, a troubled Teresa Banham who finds her escape at the bottom of a bottle. After all, we all have our vices, but what The Whale and wants us to find is faith, not in piety, or provisions, but in other people: affection and acceptance are our only saviours from those isolated islands where no man, not even an overweight one, deserves to be deserted.
Written by @Leah_Tozer