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Print Version

Capital E National Arts Festival
Based on the book by Wolf Erlbruch
Adapted for the stage by Peter Wilson
Director: Nina Nawalowalo
Composer Gareth Farr
Little Dog Barking | Wellington, New Zealand

at Downstage Theatre, Wellington
From 18 Mar 2013 to 23 Mar 2013
[40 mins]

Reviewed by John Smythe, 19 Mar 2013

Death is something all children ask about eventually, either as an abstract idea, or because a grandparent or pet has died. Maybe it comes from questioning where their food comes from – or whether dead flowers go “to heaven” too? Even if they are spared something unexpected and tragic happening close to their lives, it may come up through listening to or watching the news.  

Duck, Death and the Tulip, the picture book by German illustrator and writer Wolf Erlbruch, has been embraced the world over by parents and teachers seeking a reference tool that enables the ‘death' conversation. It's about nature taking its course and subscribes to no religion, apart from scoffing gently at the stories Duck has heard about hell.

Now Peter Wilson has adapted it for Little Dog Barking: the company he established in 2010 to produce work specifically aimed at Early Childhood and Lower Primary School aged groups. Directed by Nina Nawalowalo with sublime music from Gareth Farr and performed by Wilson and Shona McNeil, using puppets exquisitely crafted to replicate the book illustrations, it is the simplest of stories on the surface.

The Duck goes about its day, discovering and eating a Snail (of which no more is heard), having a snooze, discovering a Tulip whose aroma is ecstasy-inducing … But it is a rather endearing, skull-headed little man – Death – who picks it.  

Once aware of the suitcase-toting Death – now full-sized (Wilson) and with a kind face in place of the skull – Duck discovers he is like her “shadow”, always there, not as a threat but as a possibility, ready to respond if anything untoward happens.

Death presides over a cup of tea – with real cups and saucers but mimed tea and tea spoons – but resists Duck's suggestion they visit the pond, from which a lively Goldfish leaps. Talked into it, he comes out freezing and the kindly Duck offers to warm him up (a quiet little “Death warmed up” joke there).

They sleep as a Butterfly flits above, they ascend a tree to view the Mighty River (no share float gags here, though), the seasons change, snow falls, the river flows (shimmering silk drawn from the ‘pond'), the Duck dies (in its sleep) and is laid to rest with the Tulip, floating …

The puppetry is impeccable, with Wilson and McNeil sharing so deftly you would swear there was twice the number of puppeteers. The flow of the story is gentle and intriguing, and the New Entrant audience that filled Downstage the day I saw it was utterly entranced.

Beautifully done in every respect, it is highly recommended for 4 to 8 year olds (public performance Saturday 23 March, 10am).

For anyone who sees it, the common sayings “death warmed up” and “a dead duck” will forever have a special resonance.
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 Keran Brady
 Dione Joseph