One could cogently make an argument that, of all Sydney Theatre Company output, the material that gets a showing at Wharf 2 is often the most captivating, brave and original. Supporting the contention strongly is Africa, the latest, and possibly greatest, from My Darling Patricia. I suppose you’d expect a production company with a name like that to be, at the very least, intriguing, and it most certainly is; consistently so.
MDP collaborate as a creative ensemble and the result with Africa is even more than the sum of its very considerable parts. In a tight hour (my favourite length), puppets and people interact almost as if there were no difference between the two. (OK, in the realm of politics, it’s often the case.) And the inspiration for the work is amazing in itself.
A couple of years ago, two German kids decided to elope. To Africa. When I say kids, I don’t mean reckless teenagers, but a six-year-old boy and five-year-old girl. And the boy’s seven-year-old sister was along for the ride. After all, they needed a witness, silly! With this level of meticulous, thought-through planning you’d be right in thinking they were German. Anyway, MDP have taken this stranger-than-fictitious story, reported in The Guardian, and extrapolated it to an Australian context. Having had an aesthetic in mind even before happening upon the would-be, mini-me bride-and-groom, they melded their notion of suburban detritus with a narrative about a dysfunctional, struggling family: a single mum in a proverbially co-dependent relationship with a cruel and violent man, with three kids to bring up.
We didn’t even have to wait till curtain-up to get the idea: the curtain itself consisted of stitched together material that spoke of the very fabric of childhood; colour, wonder and fantastically open-ended imagination. Sam Routledge’s potent concept has been powerfully scripted by Halcyon Macleod and magically designed by Clare Britton and Bridget Dolan, by way of a tiered set, that allows for appearances and disappearances on several levels. No secret is made of the puppeteers who, although clad in obligatory bodysuits, are otherwise fully visible. We see all their dexterous manipulations. Well, why not? We’re all adults here, I think and, as such, don’t need the pretence of suspended disbelief. Mind you, those manipulations are so flawlessly choreographed and the thrown voices so childlike, suspension of disbelief will come unbidden. This, thanks to the individual and collective skills of Michelle Robin Anderson, Anthony Ahern, Clare Britton, Jodie Le Vesconte and Sam Routledge. Yes, it’s virtually all hands on deck.
The motif of Africa as the ultimate symbol of freedom, too, is even more alive for these neglected puppet-children, trapped in fringe-dwelling suburbs, on the very edges of what’s tolerable at any age. Even as the dark continent, Africa, in some respects, isn’t nearly, in essence, so dark as the battlers’ enclaves in the outlying areas of practically any Australian city or town. Some one is always cast out, whether it be on the basis of race, colour, creed, socioeconomic, educational or refugee status. So much for the warm embrace of the egalitarian, multicultural society we still choose to view through our rose-tinted, middle-class prism.
While the children fantasise about wild animals, the parents become them: prowling lions; mountain gorillas, shrouded in mystery. Lucy Birkinshaw’s lighting design has kept things feeling uncertain and precarious, too. Declan Kelly’s composition and sound design, far from being what you might expect (Afro-Cuban polyrhythms), is stark, spare and cacophonous, furthering the idea of an anything-could-happen, latent explosiveness, which occasionally erupts into scenes of domestic violence and the threat of incest. Nowhere and never (that springs to mind) have such indelicate, difficult-to-grapple-with themes been handled more delicately or affectingly.
It would be remiss not to cite Bryony Anderson’s puppets, who are very much among the stars of the show. Indeed, they’re more animated and efficacious than some living, breathing actors I’ve seen. Likewise, Tim McGaw’s props and set dressing are among the inspired finishing touches that make this such a must-see piece of theatre, which topically and cogently explores the lives of Howard’s much maligned, abused and exploited (by Howard, as much, or more, than anybody) battlers: their financial, emotional and spiritual poverty and desperation. Lest they be obscured by ‘iYiYis’ and consumerism.
Thank God for Africa: both the real and imagined continent; vast and wild. The saviour of children with high hopes, but low prospects. And of adults looking, looking, looking, for inspirational theatre.
And good on Blanchett, Upton, Wright, et al, for programming it.
The details: Africa plays the Wharf 2 theatre until September 17. Tickets on the company website.