22
Aug
12

The Harbinger

The Harbinger

The Harbinger

La Boite Theatre Company

Written & Directed by David Morton and Matthew Ryan

Dead Puppet Society

The Roundhouse

11th August – 1st September 2012

So did you see The Harbinger in 2011? Well, this is an entirely different show. But it’s not. This is Jurassic Park. It’s Fight Club. It’s The Sixth Sense. It’s lost none of its magic if you’ve never seen it.

The Harbinger

Director, David Morton is a Rubik’s Cube. There are a couple of squares not matching up yet but when they do, when all the pieces fall into place and everything comes together, Morton will consistently create theatrical magic. One day, he’ll find his formula. He’s a genius. With a plan. We see already (Brisbane audiences have seen it several times by now), the childlike wonder and the brilliance of his ideas taking shape and we know the best is yet to come.

I have the deepest admiration for these artists, for their craft and for the magic they are able to create. Technically, the show is brilliant. Dramatically, the story (and the story within the story) is poignant. This narrative didn’t affect me as the first one did but I don’t think Harbinger Virgins will be disappointed. In fact, I’m sure they’ll be stunned. It’s a bit like Cirque du Soleil. How do they do it? How do they make the acts every bit as magical as the last time we saw them performed? They reinvent themselves. Completely. Morton gets this. Only, his indie production was offered a main stage gig based on what it was. And perhaps it’s not all it could be…yet.

Despite taking this perspective personally, this version works. It works especially well for those who haven’t yet seen, as they enter The Roundhouse, Old Albert sitting there in his chair, enormous, sleeping and breathing. The first time I saw Albert breathing I was awestruck. This time not so much. But for new audiences, the magic is certainly there from the outset, to be discovered – and delighted in – for the first time.

This version is slightly more Tim Burtonified than the last (even the marketing collateral is more reminiscent of Corpse Bride) and the whole production has a darker feel to it. Ultimately, the story that comes from Albert’s vast collection of stories, which he writes over the years, is about hope. Before we get to the hope though, there is an awful lot of hopelessness to get through.

Previously, the bulk of the storytelling was achieved using extensive shadow puppetry, which I thought extremely effective. This time, within a larger space surrounded by an assortment of some 700 books, a storm’s aftermath of loose pages and an apple tree, we see a different, smaller story told via specially designed baby bunraku puppets. A rather abrupt opening has introduced us to the enormous, tired, old mean man (manipulated by Barb Lowing, Niki-J Price, Anna Straker & Giema Contini) and to an innocent, frightened street urchin (Kathleen Iron) as she runs for her life. She is not dissimilar in her manner to Molly in Rabbit Proof Fence, so that the image of a lost Indigenous soul is, once captured, difficult to lose.

The relationship between the little girl and the old man develops over time and we see episodic scenes – his memories coming to life – with the use of puppets and props that are brought out from underneath over-sized books, which hint at a theatrical treasure trove under the stage. We witness the younger Albert (Niki-J Price) falling in love and his wife, Adelaide (Anna Straker), at first full of hope and joy, starting to suffer in her lover’s, the writer’s, inattention. She dies in childbirth and Albert stays angry and bitter for far too long.

One of the most affecting moments is when Albert stops breathing. It is stunning to see Barb Lowing relinquish control at the moment of his death and maintain her composure, standing there as the story comes to a close, just as one would if one were in attendance at the gentle expiration of a human life, with the heart and soul and wings of an angel. It was even more interesting to see Lowing – an accomplished actor – relinquish the spotlight to a puppet. But she is humble (her humility and obvious adoration for Albert makes this a truly magical theatrical human moment). This is superb casting.

On a side note, it’s certainly an interesting creative choice to give Albert a voice. I’m not sure that I liked hearing him speak – he seemed so much meaner and I liked the openness of interpretation while he had remained silent – however; he was often as funny as he was mean and it was lovely to see Lowing’s expressiveness in lieu of Albert’s. At times, I admit, I found myself watching Lowing in preference to the puppet.

The performers are impressively proficient in their manipulative skills and are able to establish a wonderful connection with each puppet and each other; their synchronised emotional shifts adding to the pathos and equally, to the humour, which is largely delivered via the little girl’s antics. Her relationship with Princess Happy (Giema Contini) is brief, fast, funny and beautifully accomplished by both performers.

Noni Harrison (Costume Design), Whitney Eglington (Technical Director & Lighting Design) and Tone Black Productions (Sound Design) combine creative forces to make this one of the best looking productions we’ve seen this year, with gothic dresses and faces, and a soundscape and lighting design from somewhere within a dream.

See this new version of The Harbinger for its whimsy, memory, beauty, mastery and a new, sharper story told in a bold new way.

The Harbinger. Image by Al Caeiro

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