For four decades, Michael Leunig's savage and wistful universe has been one of the constants of Australian popular culture. His cartoons were a ubiquitous part of my childhood. Back in the 1970s he was still working for the lamented Nation Review, and I saw many of his cartoons for the first time in its pages - that is, until my father cancelled our subscription after a particularly pornographic review of a Cocteau film.
It seemed that a copy of The Penguin Leunig was in every Australian household. My sisters and I spent hours flipping through it, staring with wonder and hilarity at the Moomba princess strung by her toothy smile on the telegraph wires, the powdered ladies, the nose polisher. We laughed at those mute, comic animals and the strange erotic encounters that imbued us with a mysterious sexual thrill we were too young to understand. I think we did understand, however vaguely, his darker visions, in which his wavering, fragile line revealed human beings minced in an economic machine, alienated from each other and themselves in an atomised world.
In Look Right Through Me, Kage, Kage's Kate Denborough collaborates with Leunig, leaping off many of his best-loved cartoons to create a darkly beautiful work of physical theatre. She has resisted the temptation to literally illustrate them, instead looking to translate the imagery of his imaginative world into the languages of theatre.
As with her sensitive work Headlock, which played at the Malthouse five years ago, this is a meditation on masculinity. Look Right Through Me is a manifestation of Leunig's inner world. It's a series of dreamlike sequences that move from mental imprisonment to freedom, driven by a score by Jethro Woodward that embraces, like Leunig's cartoons, the lyrical and the absurd.
Julie Renton's set, lit by Rachel Burke, puts a chainlink and barbed wire barrier between the stage and the audience. Behind it, on a darkened set lit by revolving amber lights, are a number of Leunig-like constructions: an abstract tree, a rowing boat which rears up over some small models of ducks, a bed head, a ladder. At the back is a kind of cubby house, in which there lives a small boy. At the beginning of the show, he wanders out and hangs a sign on the corrugated iron fence at the back of the stage: "Dreams will be towed away". This is, of course, a reference to Leunig's famous cartoon of the drunk in the gutter.
The world revealed here is not so much one of inner-city harshness, but rather the squalor of the suburbs: it explores a more spacious kind of desolation. The central performer, Timothy Ohl, and the child who echoes him - reflections of each other, but separate - move through a bewildering and often cruel world. The performance moves towards a reuniting with innocence, a stepping away from the seductions of alienation.
The other four dancers - three men and a woman - dramatise the man's encounters through several sequences that leap from particular cartoons. There are familiar images - a man resting in a tree, or lying in a bed sprouting grass, or a grotesque carnival - but these are occasions for investigation rather than illustration, an explication of masculine vulnerability and lostness. The danger of such an adaptation is that Leunig's fragile ethos, which always teeters on the edge of sentimentality, might be coarsened in the theatre into mere bathos. Denborough and her collaborators avoid this by making it very much its own work.
The movement itself is a mixture of dance and circus, with an exciting feeling of physical risk. In its lyrical gestures and its reach towards a naked emotional expression, some of the performance is strongly reminiscent of Pina Bausch, whose Cafe Mueller I coincidentally watched the night after seeing Look Right Through Me. This is especially true of a sequence in which Fiona Cameron flings her arms about Ohl and is repeatedly dragged away by the other performers. Thinking about Bausch, whose sense of rhythm was scrupulous, highlights the uncertainties in the dramaturgy: there are moments when the action on stage seems to splinter into dislocated elements and loses its energy, or when its repetitions cease to enrich its language. But these longueurs are balanced by some riveting moments of dance.
Pictures: Look Right Through Me. Photos: Jeff Busby
Look Right Through Me, conceived and directed by Kate Denborough, creative collaborator Michael Leunig. Designed by Julie Renton, lighting design by Rachel Burke, music composed by Jethro Woodward. Co-devised and performed by Craig Barry, Fiona Cameron, Timothy Ohl, Cain Thompson, Gerard Van Dyck, Oscar Wilson and Declan Edwards. Malthouse Theatre and Kage at the Merlyn, until September 18.