Griffin Theatre Company and State Theatre Company of South Australia, Her Majesty's Theatre, Adelaide, 20 May-31 May 2015. Adapted by Kate Mulvany from the book by Kit Williams. Directed by Lee Lewis and Sam Strong.
|Photo: Brett Boardman|
In the 1970s, English children’s author Kit Williams was challenged by his publisher to “do something no one has ever done before”. The result was Masquerade, a visual puzzle- and riddle-filled picture book about a hare’s quest to unite the Moon and the Sun with the aid of a jeweled golden hare. On the book’s publishing in 1979, Williams created a minor sensation when he announced that he had buried a real golden hare – an 18 carat pendant, sculpted by the author himself – somewhere in England, and that the clues to its whereabouts were scattered throughout the book. Thousands participated in the search for the hare, which culminated (ultimately controversially, when insider knowledge was alleged a few years later) in Ken Thomas winning the contest in 1982.
The book’s popularity, however, extended beyond Williams’ native England, its elaborate paintings and innovative ‘armchair treasure hunt’ format finding significant audiences in many countries – including Australia (though a warning about acquiring a copy today: you may have to embark on a treasure hunt of your own, as I hear that the book is long out of print). One of Masquerade’s most avid antipodean admirers was Kate Mulvany, now an actor and playwright. Mulvany was suffering from childhood cancer when a woman named Tessa read the book to her at her bedside, making, according to Mulvany’s program notes, “the timelessness of a children’s oncology ward somehow bearable”. Williams set two conditions for Mulvany’s stage adaptation of Masquerade – that it be “for nine to ninety year olds”, and that the story of her illness and friendship with Tessa be included.
Mulvany meets the second condition with what, at first, is a parallel narrative. In the world inhabited by ‘mortals’, Tessa (Helen Dallimore) reads the book of Masquerade to her son, Joe (Louis Fontaine/Jack Andrew), who is largely confined to a hospital bed. Joe hasn’t been outside for days; Tessa, tired and frazzled, seems to long to escape almost as much as Joe. Around the ward – in Anna Cordingley’s design, a curtained box on a much-used revolve in the centre of the stage – Jack Hare’s (Nathan O’Keefe) fantastic quest to deliver a message of love from the Moon (Kate Cheel) to the Sun (Mikelangelo, whose Balkan gypsy music-inspired Black Sea Gentlemen provide the show’s live music) plays out.
Known as the ‘Celestial World’, this realm couldn’t contrast more with the drab, time-slowing mundaneness of Joe’s oncology ward surroundings. It is filled with colour and motion, and peopled with bizarre characters like the extravagantly-attired ‘collector of dreams’ Tara Treetops (Cheel) and her talking crow, Craw, and a lisping, lusciously-coiffured Isaac Newton (Pip Branson), unfazed by seeing his law of universal gravitation, well, suspended. In the play’s third and final act, Joe and Tessa – dismayed by Jack’s dim-witted blundering and his losing of the Moon’s love token, the golden hare pendant – enter the Celestial World to find the jewel. (The book effectively ends at this point, leaving its readers guessing; Mulvany’s third act is an entirely original contribution.) They have little to go on except Masquerade’s recurrent riddle: “Fifty is my first/Nothing is my second/Five just makes my third/My fourth a vowel is reckoned/Now to find my name/Fit my parts together/I die if I get cold/But never fear cold weather”.
|Photo: Brett Boardman|
O’Keefe, substantially reprising the deft physical comedy he brought to Windmill’s Pinocchio last year, engages and delights as Jack. Equally skillful and charismatic are Cheel and Zindzi Okenyo, the latter playing the Celestial World’s Penny Pockets and sundry characters including, hilariously, the terpsichorean Fat Pig (it would seem that no dimension is safe from Gangnam Style). Louie Fontaine appeared as Joe on opening night, giving a more than creditable account of a demanding role that includes some singing (“I dream of outside…”). Dallimore, as Tessa, is not as impressive – inexplicably cold and dour for much of the time – but brings her noted musical theatre skills to bear on the show-stopping Tessa’s Dream.
Williams’ book proves to be a somewhat problematic vehicle for a stage show, its selection made, I suspect, more on account of Mulvany’s understandable attachment to it than any compelling theatrical potential. In the first place, the solution to the book’s central riddle is text- and picture-based and can’t, despite the production design’s nod to Williams’ page borders containing stencilled letters, be effectively replicated on stage. Similarly, something substantial feels lost in translation between other aspects of the book – such as its ornate pictorial style, and English folk-infused surrealism – and this production, which, under the direction of Lee Lewis and Sam Strong, often feels hyperactive rather than adventuresome, jumbled rather than whimsical.
Chris Petridis’ audio-visual design, incorporating animated projection, is striking but underutilised. Mulvany’s dialogue, while amusingly metatextual and never patronising, is undoubtedly overwritten in places, and Williams’ edict that the play be for “nine to ninety year olds” occasionally rather too clearly shows through, especially in the tonally uneven first half. This is not to say that the play’s darker aspects are unwelcome – Joe’s illness, and themes of love, mortality, and family are commendably straightforwardly handled – but simply that Williams’ brief was perhaps a deceptively challenging one, its results surprisingly charmless rather than universally entertaining.