Shaun Tan’s The Red Tree by The Barking Gecko Theatre Company
“Who are you?” growls the drummer (David Salvaire) to the little girl in Barking Gecko’s wondrous production of Shaun Tan’s The Red Tree. It is the recurring motif of the red leaf which helps both the girl and the audience to answer the existential question of our purpose and who we are. Although The Red Tree tackles the issue of depression, it is a life affirming and uplifting production which had the opening night’s audience clapping and cheering at various stages of the girl’s odyssey.
Ella Hetherington embodies the character of the girl perfectly; her often silent portrayal of confusion and fear is accompanied by agile and sinuous movement as she travels through the different alien worlds created on stage. Emerging reluctantly from her bed, the wide eyed girl enters a world designed evocatively by Gypsy Taylor and her team. Taylor’s amazingly clever and original presentation of the girl’s mind space reinforces her view that, “the world is a wilted balloon.” The looming groper, representing the weight of her mood, mesmerised audience members, young and old.
Just as in Tan’s brilliant book, the girl does not speak. John Sheedy (producer) imaginatively solves this dilemma by allowing a music band of three to communicate for her, which they do with great eloquence and skill. They play an integral part in conveying the girl’s responses and reactions to her challenging journey and carry the narrative of Tan’s picture book with remarkable effectiveness. Matthew Marshall’s inventive lighting, and imaginative and at times humorous sound effects by Kingsley Reeve help to include the audience in the girl’s search for hope and safety.
My ten year old daughter instantly recognised the various stages of the girl’s day from the pages of the book. The seemingly impossible task of transferring the mood of the original pages to stage has been achieved magnificently by Sheedy and his team. How was the page about the snail and interminable time going to be portrayed? How do you demonstrate a world of depersonalised workers in a ‘deaf machine’? Half the enjoyment and magic of the play came from discovering just how wonderfully and ingeniously Barking Gecko was able to pull off this feat.
Just when it seems that the weight of her problems is going to overwhelm the girl after a wild and manipulative puppet dance, a red leaf is found. As the girl retraces her steps to discover that a red leaf was hiding in each difficult situation, her relief is palpable. The band’s accompanying music slowly lifts in tempo and vitality as the metaphorical leaf indicates that there has always been hope, a way out of the gloom and despair. A joyous crescendo is reached as the girl and audience are presented with the radiant image of the red tree right where she started her journey. Circles of light pan across the audience including us in the girl’s release from grief and resulting leaps of unbridled delight.
This is one of the best plays for all ages that I have seen produced by a Perth company. The Red Tree does deal with issues of despair and hopelessness but it is overwhelmingly a play of rejoicing. It will inspire discussion on all levels with both children and adults as we read into the girl’s adventures our own understandings of despondency and our solutions to these matters. My daughter and I had a lengthy discussion in the car on the way home about what to do if you’re having a bad day and where to go for help. We had fun interpreting the plethora of intriguing images and ideas which the play pointed to, and returned home bursting with energy. This is a production which has excelled at its purpose to both educate and entertain, it is a must see for all!