Covered in dirt, sweat and blood that reminded me of another nautical play Southwark put on, Hairy Ape, good soul Billy is impressed upon a Navy ship that is sailing off to fight the French.
Adapted from Herman Melville's novel Billy (Charlie Archer) is an orphan, a stammerer and a simple and gentle soul who sees the good in everyone but that doesn't mean he can't handle himself, quickly winning over moody, bully Jenkins (Iain Batchelor) by standing up to him.
But there is one person Billy just can't win over: Claggart, the man at arms (Gerrard McArthur). The relationship between these two men is fascinating. While the rest of the crew can see that Claggart is out to get Billy, Billy think he is his friend.
Why Claggart takes a dislike to Billy is the sort of thing that would come up as a question on an English exam or give psychoanalysts hours of couch time, such is the subtext in their encounters.
Is Claggart afraid of Billy because Billy isn't scared of him? Does Billy's goodness remind him of what he lacks? At times I was reminded of that line Gertrude says to Hamlet in the closet scene: "Thou turn'st mine eyes into my very soul".
There are looks and touches that could be interpreted as homosexual feelings for Billy does that make him feel emasculated and his violent dislike is his response?
Theorising is part of the enjoyment of this play, as is the slow build up to its tragic conclusion which tugs so effectively on the heart strings I did shed a few tears at the end. Charlie Archer plays Billy in such a innocent and tender way that your heart does go out to him. Having seen him as a RADA graduate last year in The Illusion it is great to see another accomplished performance.
Good performances too from the rest of the cast, my only minor grumble is that the delivery of the lines is not always as clear as it could be which doesn't do full justice to what is quite a poetic script. But, it gives me a good excuse to read the book.
Having seen Billy Budd it feels like the Southwark Playhouse is off and running at its new venue and is definitely worth a look. It runs until August 10, catch it while you can.
Recently seenRSC's Hamlet with Jonathan Slinger