An Opera Australia and Barking Gecko Theatre Company co-production in association with West Australian Opera.
Commissioned by Perth International Arts Festival and Melbourne Festival.
March 16 – 20 2016
Reviewed by Xanthe Coward
The rabbits came many grandparents ago…
What an extraordinary experience, to be offered a taste of The Rabbits during APAM (we saw a delicious 20-minute excerpt), and then be treated to the entire visual and aural feast last week on Opening Night. Commissioned by Perth International Arts Festival and Melbourne Festival, Opera Australia and Barking Gecko Theatre Company assembled some of Australia’s finest talent to create a stage adaptation of John Marsden and Shaun Tan’s picture book (open-hearted Adaptation and Direction by John Sheedy). This is a multi-award winning genre-defying production featuring a detailed score by Kate Miller-Heidke, additional music and arrangements by Iain Grandage, and libretto by Lally Katz. Rachael Maza has been instrumental as Indigenous Consultant. It doesn’t disappoint. However, unlike The Secret River, which also features magnificent music by Grandage, musical direction by Isaac Hayward and a heavy, heavy tale of the displacement and mistreatment of our Indigenous people, The Rabbits feels less optimistic. Poppy, who is nine and so smart, disagrees. She says,
We hear the bird calls in the beginning, and the bird calls at the end sound like we can sort it out. We can have our little piece of nature and they can have theirs. Even better, we can try harder to share the land. And the water. And the sky. In the end everything belongs to no one and everyone. We all live here together now.
Hollie Andrew who plays Coda, the marsupial who sings The Kite Song when the children are taken away, told Elissa Blake, “My mother was adopted so we don’t know where we are from,” she says. “I don’t know who my people are. So I’m singing on behalf of my ancestors in a lot of ways. I imagine my ancestors are calling out to me. I absolutely dig into it. It’s been a gift as an actor. It’s pretty raw but it’s healed me in a lot of ways, too.
“I love that this show says what has happened and then poses the question, ‘where do we go from here?'” Andrew says. “We need to own what has happened and together find a way to move forward. That’s the beauty of this story.” The story unsettles us and The Kite Song breaks our hearts; it’s devastating and we ache…
We ache as Kate Miller-Heidke mourns the loss of the children, wailing and calling to all the people and ancestors and spirits and spirit animals ever, everywhere. Her grief is exquisite, something we can never (should never) un-hear. She’s the all-seeing Bird, witness to events and narrator of our tragic tale. Resplendent in white and delicate feathers, glistening with the sky and the stars and the sea and the bright eyes of the whole world, from her central vantage point high above the land, she looks over its inhabitants without the power to put a stop to the desolation brought by the rabbits. Her voice is pure, ethereal, electrical. It has the power to permeate and affect, deeply, audiences of all ages and political persuasions. The only other performer in this country with the gift to bewitch us with her voice in this way is Katie Noonan, and I’d love to see her sing this role too. (We say hi to Katie on our way out of the Playhouse but we have to cut the conversation short in order to honour our commitment to another opening night around the corner…).
The band is slick, though slightly (and suitably) dishevelled, and quite fun, at times in good spirits and at times more sombre as the story dictates, comprising Isaac Hayward (MD and cello, piano & piano accordion), Rob Mattesi (trumpet), Keir Nuttall (guitar and electronics), Stephanie Zarka (bass and tuba). They’re front and centre when a false fire alarm stops the show at the forty minute mark and we wonder if we’ll see the end of it before having to get up and go. The cast and musicians collect themselves after the curtain fails to drop completely, and they resume the show some minutes later. It’s a live-theatre-thing, a reminder that anything can happen, giving us time to cringe for a bit longer after the bawdy pub song, Hop Hop Hooray!
The rabbits are bombastic, very British, Gilbert & Sullivan style operatic singers, each with his own quirky personality. (Kaneen Breen as the Scientist is especially memorable). The marsupials on the other hand, are grounded contemporary music theatre/pop vocalists (I’d love to hear more from Marcus Corowa); they remind me stylistically of The Lion King and Disney generally. Friends tell me after the show that this combination isn’t their favourite aspect of the production but I like the stark contrast, and I can appreciate that it’s part of the strategy now, whether or not it was originally intended as such, to draw a more diverse audience.
Visually too, it’s a stark and sumptuous production, beautifully conveying the essence of this great Southern land, its creatures, its colours, its textures, its heat, and all its hope and hopelessness. The production looks enough like the pages of the book to satisfy fans of Tan’s original illustrations, and yet it’s not so immense and grotesque as to frighten..the children. If we’re honest – and we are – I still find the original illustrations quite frightening. (Designer Gabriela Tylesova, Lighting Designer Trent Suidgeest, Sound Designer Michael Waters). The final image particularly has me holding my breath, desperate for the marsupial and the rabbit to step across – or around – the reflecting pool to embrace one another, or grasp each other’s hands or something but I know they’ll stay on opposite sides, staring at their own reflections, because it’s the final awful (hopeful?) image from the book.
The Rabbits, in story and style, is truly for all people. If only we can learn from this rich and challenging sixty-minute tale, and from so many more, and move forward together, hand in hand. This feeling, long after the curtain has properly come down, is the power of theatre, of storytelling, and why our stories must be told and treasured, and questioned, and told again and again.
Who will save us from the rabbits?
Comments on (the book) The Rabbits
The parallels with a real history of colonisation in Australia and around the world are obvious, and based on detailed research, in spite of the overt surrealism of the imagery and the absence of direct references. It was named Picture Book of the Year by the Children’s Book Council, which in part generated some controversy due to it’s confronting themes, and was attacked on several occasions for being ‘politically correct propaganda’, but only by right wing conservatives of course. In spite of this (or because of it), the book went on to win numerous awards in Australia, the US and UK, and is studied widely in secondary schools. It would seem that some of my concepts and designs were unacknowledged inspiration for a section of the opening ceremony of the 2000 Sydney Olympics, although I’ve never been able to find out if this is true.
One reason for the initial controversy is that The Rabbits is a picture book, and therefore thought to be children’s literature, and wrongly assumed to be didactic, whereas it had been originally conceived as a book for older readers, and generally difficult to categorise. Some children may get a lot out of it, but generally it defies most picture book conventions and is not necessarily a good choice for pleasant bedtime reading!