John Godber on the importance of theatre as he and his company bring Moby Dick outdoors in Hull

There’s definitely something in the water out East. I’ve said it before: a city by the docks that spat out Alan Plater, Tom Courtenay, Barrie Rutter has something special in it.

Martha Godber, Nick Figgis, Lamin Touray and Tom Gibbons in rehearsals for Moby Dick, inset May Tether. (Picture: Anthony Robling).

Hull also helped forge West Yorkshire native John Godber and it is to Hull he soon returns with a new production of Moby Dick to help ease audiences out of the pandemic.

Theatre audiences in Yorkshire are a hardy lot. We’ve had to become so: given the wealth of spectacular sets nature has designed for us, it’s little wonder that many of our theatre companies choose to incorporate the great outdoors into their storytelling.

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Given that we now live in a socially-distanced, Covid-influenced world, I suspect a lot of theatre companies are going to make use of the great Yorkshire outdoors.

John Godber with his wife, fellow actor and playwright Jane Thornton. (Picture: Sophie Teasdale).

The John Godber company certainly is.

“The Stage @Dock is a large amphitheatre in Hull, so I have taken Moby Dick and located it in the old Central dry dock,” says Godber.

“It means the storytellers use the dock as a real location and as a starting point to recount Moby Dick, almost as if the story belongs to Hull’s maritime history – which in a way it does; whaling started on the Humber as early as 1598.”

Using a script Godber wrote alongside Nick Lane when he was artistic director at Hull Truck Theatre, this version of Moby Dick, although 20 years old, will also be a first for the BAFTA and Olivier award-winning Godber.

“It’s strange, but I don’t think I’ve ever done a show outside before. Personally, I think audiences will be tentative about coming back to live performance and if live/outdoor venues are a way back, that can only be a good thing. Of course, Shakespeare worked outdoors all the time and he seemed to know a thing or two.”

Of course necessity is the mother of invention and it is necessity that has forced the Godber company outdoors for its latest production, but in heading out into the open air is a bit of a thing out East.

In recent years Slung Low memorably set a huge, sweeping epic show on the Docks as part of Hull’s Year as the UK City of Culture called Flood, a show which was later filmed and screened by the BBC.

Perhaps the most significant show around the water in Hull was the one created by Barrie Rutter, the Richard III he presented at the Marina boatshed in 1992.

Godber says: “I was there. It was a very evocative production, featuring some friends: Brain Glover, Mark Addy, Andrew Livingstone. I’m not quite sure what it is about these spaces, but there’s certainly something attractive about a found space and of course the Marina in Hull is a great location.

“Similarly the amphitheatre we are using near The Deep is full of promise and the whole area is being developed by a Hull firm, so there’s real cohesion to the development – in fact, the developers, the Wykeland Group, are supporting this production along with the Arts Council.”

It feels pretty good, kind of fearful and nervy to be writing about shows that are actually happening in these pages. There is also a sense of trepidation – what if there is a knee jerk set of confusing ‘advice’ on not travelling, as we saw over last weekend in Kirklees? It is the post-pandemic world into which British theatre is emerging and the Godber company, alongside all companies and buildings, are just going to have to adapt.

“Because we are performing socially distanced, and of course in the open air, the risk of transmission is much more reduced,” says Godber.

“We are following Covid guidelines to the letter, the cast are tested twice weekly and formed a bubble, living together in a flat in Hull’s Old Town. Every Covid edict has been accounted for and our stage management are very fastidious.”

Godber isn’t going to put a foot wrong. After a year where the arts has been more valued than ever – and more at risk than ever – the ability to simply make work, employ other artists, is

vital.

“It’s been a very strange, even depressing time for those of us working in the arts and in theatre in particular,” he says.

“It’s been like watching your entire career dissolve, so there is very much a feeling of ground zero, of picking yourself up again. I’ve been doing this for a long time now and being in a rehearsal room with ten young performers and stage management, working on such an epic story is very energising. I’m not sure I would feel so charged if I was doing a smaller show.”

That there are other people working because of Godber is no small thing. Something of a one-man industry, with Bouncers premiering in 1977, it means his writing has seen actors in employment for six decades.

And he just keeps going. “As for the Godbers in lockdown, we have been at home for fourteen months with our family. We wrote and recorded a 15-part radio drama which we gave to Radio Humberside and Radio Lincolnshire to air last year which we recorded in our daughter Liz’s bedroom,” he says.

“We also had an invitation to mount a new show at Stephen Joseph Theatre in Scarborough. Because we are a bubble of four we were able to produce a play, Sunny Side Up, which ran

for five performances last September – possibly the only play produced during the pandemic, maybe anywhere in the world.”

Another Godber classic on tour

This week saw the launch of a national tour of a new production of another Godber classic, April in Paris, starring Joe Pasquale and Sarah Earnshaw.

Al and Bet are in a rut. Married for 26 years, their conversations are running dry and life has taken its toll. Then Bet wins a night away for two to Paris in April, via a luxury trip on P&O Ferries, out of Hull. The play opened at Hull New Theatre and will be coming the Alhambra in Bradford June 12 and 13.

Moby Dick, by the John Godber Company, Stage @The Dock Hull, June 2 to 12. Tickets www.thejohngodbercompany.co.uk