Review: Africa ~ theatre notes

Friday, November 20, 2009

Review: Africa

I’ve often pondered the astounding ability of puppets to generate intense emotional responses. How is it possible that we can identify so fiercely with an overtly unrealistic object made of sticks and paper?

The power of animation plumbs our imaginative humanity. It's a simple and crude device that every child exploits in play, but it enacts a totemic magic, an ancient ability to invest an object with human or supernatural qualities. In the theatre or on the screen in, say, the exquisite art of Hayao Miyazaki, it removes the possibility of realistic representation and with it our tendency to moral judgment. What is delineated with a poignant clarity is pure action, pure gesture. Consequently it creeps beneath your emotional guard. You’re not aware until it’s too late that you’ve opened what otherwise are fiercely protected regions of the psyche.

Puppets are key to the impact of Africa, the latest work of Sydney company My Darling Patricia, presently making their Malthouse debut as the resident company in the Tower Theatre. Like last year’s Black Lung residency, Africa demonstrates the value of giving talented young companies the resources and time to fully realise their visions. It’s a stunning piece of theatre that weaves together the mundane and the marvellous to create a rawly affecting work about childhood.

The germs of Africa were news stories: one of two small German children who ran away from home intending to elope, and were caught on their way to Africa, and several accounts of child abuse. However, My Darling Patricia has leapt away from these sources to forge its own story. It’s a simple narrative about the imaginative world of three small children, who are represented by bunraku-style puppets which are manipulated in full sight of the audience.

The children live in a chaotic house, strewn with washing and toys. The two girl are the daughters of a woman who is a traditional “bad mother”, a single woman in the throes of an abusive relationship. She clearly loves her children and is the source of their security, but she is also neglectful and chaotic, and we witness her downward spiral as she struggles with her circumstances. The little boy is the girls' best friend, an abused child who takes refuge in their home.

The three puppets become real very quickly, a function of the accuracy of the gestures their manipulators achieve, and of the collective's unsentimental observations of childish behaviour. The show opens, for example, with the little boy putting a doll's head in a microwave, an absurd and macabre image that sharply expresses the cheerful amorality of young children, and which also foreshadows the cruelty that he suffers.

The two adults, the mother and her lover, are played by actors (Jodie le Vesconte and Matt Prest) who mostly perform on the top tier of a multi-level stage, seen from the waist down from a child’s-eye perspective. Their torsos are visible as silhouettes through a frosted glass window. The adults' sexuality and violence occur literally above the heads of the children, who play obliviously beneath them, as if, like the sky, the adults in their lives are natural elements.

Africa plays across the two realities, adult and child, with an impressive ingenuity and playfulness. The children might be deprived in many ways, but they don’t consider themselves deprived: like all small children, they accept their circumstances as the totality of their universe. When they watch a nature documentary on Africa, which is comically rendered through the lens of their childish desires, another possibility opens up: Africa becomes the focus of their inarticulate yearnings, the place where they can be the marvellous beings they feel nascently within themselves.

Yet this imaginative freedom doesn’t protect them from harsh realities. The double world of Africa - its simultaneous evocation of the domestic and the epic - permits My Darling Patricia to tell a story of startling bleakness that paradoxically seduces us with its light playfulness. Even in the face of its brutal truths, the show expresses a curious optimism. One of the chief achievements of Africa is its emotional honesty: how it at once expresses human resilience – the ability to generate beauty from the “rag and bone shop of the heart” – and the incorrigibility of damage and loss.

Realised with an admirable skilfulness and attention to detail, it’s funny, beautiful and heartbreaking. It's selling out fast, but beg, borrow or steal a ticket - you don't want to miss it.

Picture: My Darling Patricia's Africa. Photo: Jeff Busby

A brutally edited version of this review is in today's Australian.

Africa, conceived, designed and created by My Darling Patricia. Concept by Sam Routledge, written and directed by Halcyon Macleod. Designed by Clare Britton and Bridget Dolan, performed by Jodie Le Vesconte and Matt Prest, puppeteers Calre Britton, Alice Osborne and Sam Routledge, composition and sound design by Declan Kelly, lighting by Lucy Birkinshaw. Malthouse Theatre @ The Tower until November 29.


secondsight said...

hi there alison

saw africa a couple of nights ago on its return tour as part of mobile states

surprised nobody seems to have picked up on the (unintentional) racism implied by the title

that is, the performance africa is metaphorically representative of a journey into the 'dark heart', a dubious concept often criticised for its contrasting shades of what is good and evil in human beings

in particular, when the boy is abandoned at the end of the show and discovers that africa is really a manifestation of a primal darkness that exists both within, and beyond his internal world

worth mentioning given that works such as conrad's heart of darkness have been criticised for purveying a similar metaphorical function

many thanks

Alison Croggon said...

Hi Second Sight - I'd disagree here. Africa is, for these children, everything that is exotic and different from their own world. It's arguable whether that is racist. But the "dark heart" is in their lives, not in their dreams: for the abandoned boy, Africa is the fragile dream, the possibility of escape, that his friends have left behind.

Anonymous said...

Have just seen this show in Perth - it is appalling sloppy puppetry and dramatically boring - don't waste your time or money seeing this sub standard theatre

Anonymous said...

Just saw it in Brisbane and hated it. I'm sure it's interesting for those who don't often see puppets used in this way but if you have then what is left is a thin boring story with every dramatic cliche in the book. I was not confronted in the slightest. All style, pretend drama, no substance. Avoid.

Alison Croggon said...

Baffled by these comments, btw (which also seem disconcertingly similar). And yes, I have seen bunraku puppetry on several occasions.

Anonymous said...

My God
You're right! They're all in the same font!

Nope. I'm not the anon from Perth (and I'm not buying the whole "dark heart" thing). I saw it at the Powerhouse in Brisbane last week and was bored a few minutes in all the way to the end. Some of the staging was interesting (the legs), but the story was so badly banged together I couldn't even enjoy the craft. I know the story isn't the main thing here, but just something a tiny bit more original and it might have held together for me. Maybe we get a few more of the "poor people being horrible to their children" up here than down south. Just comes off as middle-classed snobbery to me. My thoughts only.

Alison Croggon said...

I'm always right. *

I can't speak to your boredom - that just happens, and maybe all else follows from that response. But I must say to claim it's about "poor people being horrible to their children" completely traduces the complexities (especially the emotional delicacies) of this show, which I admired for avoiding such moralising traps.

Anonymous said...

Well, as I'm never wrong we may have ourselves a philosophical granny knot.

But yes. Fair point. I have seen so many shows about poor people as horrible parents that they more than likely tainted this experience.

I'm not too sure what you mean by avoiding "moralising traps" though. It was the manipulation of the audience's morality that I actually found incredibly annoying.

Doesn't a scene with a father-figure luring a small child/puppet towards his crotch with a potato chip rely on the audience's morality to be shocking?

I'm usually quite good with my boredom. I can put it in check and wait for something to come along to invest in. But with the thin story, awkward puppetry and kitten-strangling drama I just wasn't left with anything to care about.

Maybe I'm just turning into an old cynic but this show had a big reputation and I left wondering what all the fuss was about.

Alison Croggon said...

Fair enough. I found it very moving, in part because it suspended judgment, and partly because the actual play focused on the private imaginative worlds of these children in ways that seemed to me acutely accurate: it wasn't purporting to be about "poor people" but about those children. I thought it was especially moving in its portrayal of what loss means to children. Would it have been less tiresome if it was about middle class children, out of curiosity?

Fwiw (and it may be worth little): I think it struck me so powerfully because I once was a very poor single mother with two small kids. Yes, I've even been homeless (twice), and evicted by police for being late on rent. Not the same situation, but there were recognitions. I didn't think the mother was portrayed as "horrible", and I'm a little sensitive to those judgments in a work. The children clearly didn't.

Anonymous said...

No, I don't think making it middle-class would have added anything. But by pushing the poorer-class element I felt it was layering on an explanation that the story didn't need. For me it became this strange excuse for everything which I found uncomfortable. Or an attempt to make me feel something without earning it through good drama. Just by making them poor. My own middle-classed guilt perhaps.

"Being horrible" was definitely the wrong term to use, as the mother was more complex than I'm giving her credit for. That's definitely a reductionist spill-over from other shows I've seen.

I can't say Africa was my cup of tea but going by what you've said, I do appreciate that others may get a lot more out of it than me.

Thanks for the chat. And for sharing such personal details with someone as lazily anonymous as myself.

Alison Croggon said...

The past is another country &c. And thanks for the comments!