‘Hell Ship – The Journey of the Ticonderoga’ was entrancing.
Soft music and the crackling of an imaginary fireplace filled the dimly lit QUT Gardens Theatre as the audience, asked to wear masks upon entry and exit, took their seats for a one-hour drama of a pandemic on board a ship.
It’s been one year since the coronavirus-contaminated Ruby Princess docked in Sydney; it’s been 169 years since the typhus-tainted Ticonderoga arrived in Port Melbourne after a three-month voyage from England. Nearly 200 of its passengers had died, earning the clipper the moniker, ‘Hell Ship.’
A bed with three floor-level spotlights downstage right with a bedside table and wooden chair served as the set. Projections on a tall, white canvas curtain, hung upstage left, were used to further the narrative; changing scenes or displaying additional elements, like a black and white photo of writer/star Michael Veitch’s great-great-grandparents whose story he tells: James William Henry Veitch and Annie Morrison.
The use of sound design and music was exceptional. The show opened with Veitch’s son, Thomas, sitting centre-stage to haunt the audience with music from his cello. The younger Veitch arranged the musical pieces for ‘Hell Ship’, which seemed to alternate between ominous and hopeful. He appeared a second-time mid-play, singing along with his instrument, and closed the show with a final mournful melody as the theatre-goers listened with rapt attention.
The audience heard Veitch’s main character before we saw him, emphasising the prominence placed on sound. He was sending someone back to bed, explaining he would be visiting to treat the young patient who was understood to be in and out of sleep on stage, passing the time with the tale of his harrowing experience as a young surgeon on board the Ticonderoga. Veitch’s likeable elderly doctor character was well-costumed with great attention to detail paid to props: an old-fashioned medical bag full of small vials and bottles, a mortar and pestle to mix his concoctions, and a kerosene lamp to keep the room in shadows.
Ship bells, seagulls, and other sounds of life at sea in the 1850s were augmented by a distinctly cool breeze that filtered through the theatre. The overall sensory effect was literally chilling.
Largely positioned at the bed, Veitch’s main activity was pacing back and forth, moving to stand in a spotlight stage left as changes in lighting and sound (including his multiple accents) signalled he had taken on other characters. This limited use of space from director Peter Houghton echoed the small chambers described on the ship, as well as the present-day setting of a young child’s bedroom. While the darkness was certainly intentional, Houghton may consider additional lighting to ensure the audience can always see the thoughtful changes of expression on Veitch’s face when seated bedside.
Essentially a one-man show, Veitch flubbed only a few lines and recovered gracefully as the bumbling, good-natured doctor. His delivery was natural throughout, lowering his voice for comedic asides (like a joke about Melbourne’s weather that earned chuckles from the crowd) and raising it excitedly when the land of the Victorian coast finally appeared.
It’s the second time Veitch has delved into history, written a book and transformed it for the stage after ‘Flak’, based on his interviews with World War Two airmen. Veitch has previously explained his process of going through his writing to pick out visual highlights.
“I’m not a historian… I’m a storyteller,” Veitch told the ABC. “And as my dad always said, ‘writing is a visual medium.’ It’s basically putting pictures in your head with words…It’s a man talking about the past and bringing it to life and playing different characters.”
Hardship, heroism, courage and love were the themes brought to life in this enthralling revelation of Australian maritime history; a story of surviving disease and quarantine in close quarters that’s all too relevant in 2021.
‘Hell Ship’, presented by Chester Productions and QUT Gardens Theatre, performed until Tuesday, 23 March 2021. For information on upcoming QUT events, visit the QUT Gardens Theatre website. For information on the ‘Hell Ship’ national tour including the next performances scheduled in NSW, visit the show website.