I didn’t know it, but Hugh Hughes isn’t his real name (although one might’ve guessed, I suspose). Story Of A Rabbit, the second of three shows in his repertoire, stormed the Edinburgh Fringe and Barbican. And little wonder. It’s charming, touching, magical and quite unlike anything I’ve seen before.
‘Hugh’, otherwise known as Shon Dale-Jones, warms the audience up in two ways: personally greeting them as they enter the theatre and by providing tea. As he explains, originally, they (his musical and lighting sidekick is Aled Williams) were keen to provide tea to every member of the audience, but realised it would simply take too long. So, instead, they marked two tickets: the first, with a ‘T’; the second, with an ‘EA’. Unluckily for Hughes, the first recipient was argumentative and seemed to fancy himself as the centre of attention. If his surname wasn’t Prat(t), it should’ve been. Still, with skill, patience, a characteristically broad smile and the merest hint of assertiveness, he managed to surmount this early obstacle.
It’s not a perfect show. Nor a perfectly smooth one; even after all this time. The early stages have one wondering if and when the show proper will, in fact, begin, since HH spends quite some time painting a backdrop and context, explaining what’s going to happen. This seems more than a little laborious, pedantic and self-indulgent, given the scheduled run of ninety minutes, no interval. Mind you, much of what he has to say is fascinating; a kind of anatomy of theatre, both deeply thoughtful and soberingly philosophical. It could become a thesis. He quotes, by means of his pseudo-Powerpoint presentation, the likes of Einstein and Wittgenstein, among others.
Meanwhile, Williams provides sfx, accompaniment and a benignly innocent presence. Scattered around the stage (and, as we discover, elsewhere in the theatre) are a menagerie of props. A scale model of a Welsh village. Large screen, for audiovisual projections. An action-man, in a perspex case, on a pedestal. A flip-chart. A bentwood chair. A couple of planks of ‘four-be-two’. And so on. Each of these, progressively, comes into its own, including the large, spotlit potato that hovers over us, which serves as a comic comparison: “Imagine how many small pieces of potato go into making this massive one, then imagine how many tiny pieces of you go into making you.”
Out of context, this might well sound lame, inscrutable or just downright weird but, by this stage, Hughes has insinuated himself into deep recesses of our hearts and minds, the dark, secret corners where we hide our true feelings, including any traces of self-love to which we may yet cling.
Hughes gentle, idiosyncratic humour is flagged in the beginning, such as when he points to the laptop with duct tape obscuring the logo. He carefully argues this is to steer clear of any corporate kowtowing, but then says, “but you can plainly see it’s an Apple Mac”.
Story Of A Rabbit, as he, again, painstakingly elucidates, is the title of the show, but the show actually collides two stories: the titular one and another, of no title, but which might be called ‘Story Of My Father’s Funeral’ (or something like that). It’s this collision, along with Hughes’ uncanny, almost inexplicable capacity for spellbinding evocation of the minutiae of very personal history, that weaves the magic and undeniably enchanting nature of the show. Ironically, Hughes is, seemingly deliberately, the key antagonist in threatening such, given his penchant for bringing up the lights, breaking the mood and narrative.
He plays with us, while risking it all, in a kind of theatrical anarchy. Again, quite inexplicable, but mightily compelling, as one wonders where he’s going. And why.
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To reveal any more of the narrative would be to spoil things. Suffice to say, to employ classic understatement, it’s refreshing to see a writer and performer take such pleasure in describing detail in which, clearly, Hughes find his God. Indeed, he manages to extrapolate his unique experience into universal dimensions, such that, if you’re not touched in the manner alluded to above, you may want to check, to ensure you’re not made of stone, rather than flesh and bone. If you’ve lost a loved one, you’ll feel pangs of compassion, grief, loneliness, loss, sadness and nostalgia. If you haven’t lost a loved one, his intertwined rabbit’s ‘tails’ may well inspire you with a new sense of appreciation for what you have.
Hughes probes and interrogates the very, often conflictual, quintessences of memory, imagination and certainty. He’s an intellectual. A philosopher. An artist. And, above all, a magician. You’re sure to be left wondering how he does his tricks and, better yet, left wondering, generally. Wondering, in the sense, of being filled with wonder.
This is a sobering, instructive (but never didactic) fairytale for big people. Inasmuch as we ever become big people. And, as deftly guides us to understand, we sometimes get thinks in the wrong order. We think of death as coming after life. But perhaps it’s the other way ’round. Even an agnostic tending towards atheist can be awed by such a poetic allusion.
Since it’s driven by such apparent sincerity and truth (albeit patchworked with fantastical, dream-like imaginings), the final, fascinating question is whether or not this is based on Shon’s actual, factual, real-life experience, or merely Hugh’s constructed ‘real-life’ experience. If the former, it’s a heartrendingly moving, rough-hewn piece of theatre. If the latter, it’s a consummate deception by a clever-dick conman who knows precisely how to exploit and manipulate our emotions.
It’s hard to say which is the higher art. Either way, Hughes, Dale-Jones, or both, has/have pulled a real live rabbit out of their hat/s.
The details: Story Of A Rabbit is at the Playhouse, Sydney Opera House until December 10. Tickets on the venue website.