Sunday, 19 October 2014

Postcard from Perth 35

Animated Landscapes

Moominpappa at Sea, Farm, Falling Through Clouds

Following on from my previous Postcard about Letters Home, King Hit and the theatre of identity, the other shows I’ve seen in Perth recently all involved puppets. The simplest and for me most successful was Spare Parts associate director Michael Barlow’s delightful adaptation of the great Finnish children’s author Tove Jansson’s classic Moominpappa at Sea. The show toured regionally earlier this year, but I saw it at the WA Museum as part of the Awesome Festival for Bright Young Things, which took over various Perth Cultural Centre venues over the last ten days.

I read and re-read the Moomin books obsessively as a child, so I was worried that I might feel quite protective about the material. In the best Scandinavian tradition, Jansson’s creatures inhabit a twilight world fractured by uncertainty. Adapting Moominpappa at Sea in particular as a puppet show seemed like jumping in at the deep end. It’s a melancholy, troubled, Symbolist late work that spoke to me deeply when I was a teenager. I remember being stirred by the ambiguous sexuality of Moomintroll’s encounters with the sea-horses; the incipient dementia of Moominmamma’s progressive disappearance into her wall-painting; Moominpappa’s neurotic mid-life crisis of impotence and failure attempting to ‘man’ his lighthouse; the clinical depression embodied by the frozen loneliness of the Groke; Little My’s psychotic feelings of rage and abandonment; and underlying everything, the uncontrollable forces of inner life inhabiting the island and the sea. Hardly the stuff of children’s literature or theatre, you might think – or perhaps on the contrary, precisely the stuff of children’s literature and theatre.

In the event, Michael’s Barlow’s adaptation captures Jansson’s subtle, whimsical spirit perfectly. It’s a virtually a solo show (albeit with a crucial double-role for stage manager Bruno Michel) which Michael now also performs (he originally directed Bec Bradley in the role for the regional tour). I’ve long admired Michael as a master puppeteer with a uniquely engaging stage-presence. Here he finds the perfect balance between endowing the simple puppets and minimalist paper set (both designed by Leon Hendroff) with life while also ‘animating himself’, so to speak, through his voice, face and body as he takes on the various characters.

The only false note for me was the use of narration, which I felt intermittently broke the spell. As with the previous Spare Parts show I wrote about earlier this year, Hatchiko, I wanted the story to ‘tell itself’ through action, image and minimal dialogue, allowing the performer to absorb himself in the puppets, and us to absorb ourselves in watching and overhearing them without having everything explained to us. Once again, I wonder if it’s a question of ‘designating’ the work of the company too much in terms of its audience – this time in term of preconceived notions about children and their capacity to attend, imagine and follow visual storytelling. I also wondered if Michael felt that he needed to avoid or dispel some of the book’s darkness and ambiguity for the same reason; but children can cope with darkness and ambiguity; just ask Melanie Klein.

This is a story about a family that’s externally functional, harmonious and loving but internally being pulled apart by centrifugal forces. The puppets are ideal representatives for the characters’ secret selves, their inner restlessness: Moominpappa’s desire for adventure, Moominmamma’s desire to escape, Moomintroll’s sexuality, Little My’s rage. Jansson’s genius was to recognise that these feelings and forces are a normal part of everyone, in every family. She embraced them by creating a unique bestiary of creatures who became emblems of our own secrets selves. It’s the unspoken aspect of this inner world that makes it ideal material for puppetry: a world that children instinctively understand because they live it intensely themselves and sense it in the adults around them. Puppetry makes this unspoken world of hidden emotions visible and tangible. As such, they can be discreetly acknowledged and shared.


Back at their home-base in Fremantle, Spare Parts were also presenting Farm, an ambitious epic work of visual theatre derived from research and development residencies in the Wheatbelt town of Merredin. Once again, I can’t review this show altogether impartially as I played a role in it, albeit only in voiceover, and was also employed by the company earlier this year on a visit to Merredin to set up a community installation for the Agricultural Show (which I wrote about in an earlier Postcard). However I had nothing to do with the script development and wasn’t involved in rehearsals, my work being confined to a day at the Show and an afternoon in a recording studio, so my experience of the production is largely as an audience member.

Farm has been written by Perth independent theatre artist Ian Sinclair and directed by Spare Parts artistic director Philip Mitchell, with a spectacular set by Matt McVegh (featuring large wheeled light-boxes on the surface of which images are traced by the actors and projected on a screen overhead) and equally spectacular lighting by Graham Walne, stirring music by company regular Lee Buddle, and energetic performances by Chloe Flockhart, Bec Bradley, St John Cowcher and dancer Ruth Battle (Chloe and Bec were also involved as co-devisors on the development of the show).

Ian’s script is poetic and allusive yet down-to-earth. It tells the story of a family farm from the perspective of a young girl, her grandfather, and her mother and father – along with a kind of native earth-spirit who also appears as a (non-native) sheep and later a kangaroo. Narration as such is replaced by the device of short-wave radio conversations between the young girl and her grandfather (a pre-recorded voiceover by yours truly); in fact these are the only two characters who speak. Notwithstanding this self-imposed limitation, I found the use of language in the script richly suggestive. However the story itself seemed a little schematic and even hazy at times.

The lack of narrative clarity or momentum was accentuated by occasionally cumbersome staging with the actors wheeling the light-boxes around into new configurations to designate literal or psychological shifts or scene changes. I also found the device of the dancer-spirit unclear (if elegantly realized by Ruth Battle), especially if intended as a substitute for any direct acknowledgment of the region’s Aboriginal inhabitants (apparently terra nullius except for the odd kangaroo or native spirit).

As with the treatment of sporting violence in King Hit reviewed previously, the representation of ‘the land’ and its hardships in Farm did not altogether escape a certain endemic Australian sentimentality (we do this with war as well, as current WW1 commemorations testify). Abstracted from historical or geographical specificity, ‘the land’ becomes (and remains) an alien, featureless and hostile zone inhabited by incomprehensible forces (a seemingly unchanging climate punctuated by apparently random dust-storms and bushfires) rather than the site where specific cultural practices (land-clearing, irrigation, patriarchy, colonialism, indiscriminately introduced animals and crops) play themselves out with devastating psychological, social and ecological consequences. After a distressing opening sequence of gung-ho tree-chopping, script and staging didn’t really follow through on this, perhaps out of deference to the good denizens of Merredin. The performers however endowed their characters and situation with a vivid particularity that spoke volumes despite the lack of dialogue or detail.

I think this lack of detail detracted from Farm in a way it didn’t from Mooninpappa at Sea because the former attempted to depict a realistic world (albeit using a lyrical script) whereas the latter is psychological and symbolic. The Farm family also don’t talk to each other (with the exception of the daughter and grandfather, whose relationship is the heart of the work) which makes them inherently less dramatic than the Moomin family, who communicate volubly (if ineffectually, after the manner of Chekhov) both with each other and the landscape. Ironically, this made the human characters somewhat two-dimensional in comparison.

For a puppet show, there was also a notable lack of puppets. Instead, it was as if the actors almost become highly animated puppets themselves. Perhaps that says something about how we experience living on the land, or even in this country: animated by alien forces, but spiritually dead inside. In the final analysis, I found Farm a spectacular, melancholy but ultimately dry and abstract work about failed interaction between people and landscape, which made it difficult to sustain itself dramatically. Maybe more puppets would have helped.


The last show under review is Falling Through Clouds at PICA. Perth indie supergroup The Last Great Hunt’s second show this year (following Elephents at The Blue Room, reviewed in June) is actually a devised work by four very talented members of the company. Tim Watts, Arielle Gray and Chris Isaacs (who all previously collaborated on It’s Dark Outside and Alvin Sputnik) are here joined by Adriane Daff, who’s currently going from strength to strength as an actor.

Like its precursors, Falling Through Clouds is a low-fi, multimedia, live and digital animation-filled work of visual theatre that seems to be driven by the creative inspiration of Tim in particular, although no-one is officially designated as the writer or director of the show. The story is told almost entirely using images, including puppetry, masks and the extensive use of live-cam projection. The scant dialogue is inconsequential and I’m guessing largely improvised in origin; skeletal narrative information mostly takes the form of titles projected on screens.

In a world where birds have (mysteriously) become extinct, Mary is a scientist employed to genetically re-engineer them and raise them to fly again. Somewhat arbitrarily she’s given a year to achieve this – failing which (again somewhat arbitrarily) her final duty before being dismissed from her job is to exterminate her hapless creations. At night she dreams of flight herself, and also (more disturbingly) of being haunted by her own double (these dreams are thrillingly staged).

This is theatre reborn from the ashes of cinema – or perhaps more specifically, live animation reborn from the ashes of its cinematic counterpart (which has arguably fuelled the fortunes of Hollywood for the last forty years from the puppet-shark in Jaws to the latest iteration of Madagascar). Words yield to pictures, actors to puppets, adults and children alike to child-adults, and human beings to animals with the souls of people. In the relative absence of language, music plays a vital role in communicating meaning – here provided in the form of a soaring score by theatre, film and TV composer Ash Gibson Greig.

Some gaps in the plot can be easily filled. The extinction of birds is presumably a consequence of human-induced loss of biodiversity (though other species go unmentioned). The precise nature of the biotech company who employ Mary is a little more obscure; her fellow employees are played for laughs, but there’s an intimation of something more Kafkaesque at work which is never fully developed. As a result the scenario feels a little sketchy, and it’s hard to feel that there’s much at stake, despite the best efforts of the soundtrack and cast.

In fact I experienced this show less as a story than as a sequence of images. As such, I found the dreams more powerful than their secondary elaboration as plot. Underlying the contemporary sociological theme of technology (digital and biotech) as ‘second nature’ are universal psychological phenomena such as the fear of the double or the desire to fly. According to Freud, the double or doppelgänger is a classic instance of what he calls ‘the uncanny’ or unheimlich – literally, the un-familiar that is in fact a split-off version of the self – while dreams of flight are (of course) sexual in origin. Mary’s masked double is thus a murderous sleepwalker who embodies her own projected sense of guilt; while exhilarating representations of flying (using projection and physical theatre) express the fulfilment of physical longing in a world that seems otherwise devoid of sex, reproductive or otherwise. Somehow the cute birds and crazy scientists of the surface plot didn’t quite match the power of these subterranean archetypes. In this regard Falling Through Clouds falls somewhere between Moominpappa at Sea and Farm in terms of the use of animation to represent internal as opposed to external worlds.

On a sliding scale of device-driven complexity though it’s a giant step beyond the elegant simplicity of Mooninpappa or even the stage-business clutter of Farm. In fact there’s so much going on technically and imaginatively here that sometimes it’s hard to see the wood for the trees. Perhaps this over-complexity and lack of unifying perspective can be attributed to the absence of a director or writer. The images and sequences themselves are astonishing, clever, exhilarating, beautiful, funny and poignant, but there’s something missing: a guiding thread, perhaps. The narrative lacks shape, and after a while (like so many Hollywood movies, animated and otherwise) I started to feel like I was being pounded by one damn thing after another.

Perhaps this is simply a reflection of the subject-matter in the theatrical form: the impact of technology on nature, the body and the psyche; and the increasingly media-saturated, disorientating, dreamlike, solipsistic nature of contemporary existence. In the end though, I found Falling Through Clouds a confusing work, and on reflection a divided one. In short, I felt as if there were two shows here: a goofy sci-fi parable (which recalls the apocalyptic framework of Alvin Sputnik) and a darker symbolic fairy-tale about doubles and flight (which perhaps has more in common with It’s Dark Outside). The two didn’t quite cohere, and as a result I was sometimes unsure of what I was meant to be watching or feeling.

This is perhaps harsh criticism of a work that’s still hugely entertaining and displays dazzling inventiveness and skill. It’s dramatically and emotionally anchored by a touching central performance from Adriane – as was the case with Chloe in Farm – with little help from the script in terms of dialogue or backstory. Tim, Arielle and Chris provide energetic support, but again, they have little to go on textually and one feels their talents are slightly wasted on such thin material. Perhaps such deficiencies of plot and character didn’t matter in Alvin or It’s Dark because the central character in the former was a puppet, and in the latter was represented using mask. As such, we were already in the realm of archetypes and dreams. This is properly the realm of puppetry and animation, which explains their appeal as storytelling devices for children, who move freely between this nocturnal world and the diurnal one of waking life. The characters and setting of Moominpappa at Sea also belong to this dream-world, unlike the externalized, all-too-human people and places that are the raw material for Farm. In comparison, Falling Through Clouds seems uncertain where it wants to land.    

The work of this company – and Tim in particular – is at an exciting crossroads. Imaginatively and in terms of craft, they (and he) can seemingly do anything: in particular their combined use of digital and live animation, projection, puppetry, mask and visual theatre is streets ahead of the pack – Lepage comes to mind as the obvious precursor – and there’s a home-made, DIY, indie aesthetic which is uniquely their own (though it owes a lot to the Perth vibe). Above all, I’m a huge fan of their commitment to ensemble-based work.

In terms of writing, direction and dramaturgy, though, there’s a sense that they’re turning in circles. Perhaps this is an inevitable stage for a young company in a small town, and a perennial risk with group-devised work. Based on my own experiences in ensemble theatre, my feeling is that stronger direction and writing is needed, either from inside or outside the group.

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