Perth Festival: The 14th Tale ~ theatre notes

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Perth Festival: The 14th Tale

On this mercifully cool Perth day, Ms TN found herself in a fragile state. This is entirely the fault of the "festive" part of "arts festival". After last night's show I met some writerly friends at the Festival Gardens, the pleasantly democratic festival bar. The gardens are a wittily designed astro-turfed space strung with rows of lamps and stocked with reclaimed furniture. There's a looping video of circling rubber ducks where the cool kids dance, and right next to the lounge is the Main Stage, where the music acts are performed (last night it was Bonnie Prince Billy).

Inua Ellams in The 14th Tale

It's in these kinds of hubs that you feel the life of a festival gather and lift. A festival is much more than just a bunch of acts, and venues like the gardens provide a focus for the quickening it also represents. The night was balmy, the conversation delightful... And in the way of these things, one drink led to another and, well, here I am, facing my busiest two days in Perth, with a vague space where my brain used to be.*

This weekend's shows include the National Theatre of Scotland's Beautiful Burnout, Lucinda Childs's Dance, Raoul and Barking Geckos Driving Into Walls. I plan to write about them when I return home to Melbourne and am safely locked in my study. But before I sign off for an emergency dose of alka seltzer, let me briefly tell you about The 14th Tale, Nigerian poet Inua Ellams's irresistible one-man show. It was a last-minute booking for me, and I attended with no idea of what to expect.

Ellams seems to be one of those people unfairly showered with talent. He began his creative life as a visual artist and began writing later. According to the program, much of his practice is an attempt to merge visual art and writing. He is also, as is clear from the opening moments of The 14th Tale, a natural performer - an easy presence on stage, with an expressive physicality of which director Thierry Lawson takes full advantage.

The text itself is sonically rich, layered with sly rhymes, surprisingly turned phrases and vivid imagery. It's also very funny. "I'm from a long line of trouble-makers," Ellams tells us. "A line of ash-skinned Africans, born with clenched fists and a natural thirst for battle..." He then relates a series of improbable boyhood scrapes in Africa, London and Dublin, which are odd enough to be true: the brutal revenge, via toothpaste and drawing pins, on a school bully, or being chased up a tree by outraged nuns.

These anecdotes are woven as memories through a theatrical present in which Ellams, his clothes spattered with red paint, is waiting impatiently in hospital for news of someone he loves. As the show unfolds, it becomes clear that his father has suffered a serious stroke. "Boys should never see their fathers fall," he says late in the show. "It upturns worlds and steals words..."

For all its hilarity, The 14th Tale is a meditation on mortality and change, on the transition from childhood into adulthood that happens when suddenly "trouble" means something different from childish mischief-making. It's a beautifully modulated performance, punctuated by a clever but unobtrusive lighting design by Michael Nabarro, and wholly engrossing: 55 minutes vanishes in a flash. An unexpected gem.

* Warning: Some fictional strategies may have been employed in writing this post.

The 14th Tale, written and performed by Inua Ellams, directed by Thierry Lawson. Fuel and Perth Festival, Dolphin Theatre, until February 26.

Disclaimer: Theatre Notes visited Perth as a guest of the Perth Festival.

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