DUCK, DEATH AND THE TULIP

Downstage Theatre, Wellington

18/03/2013 - 23/03/2013

Suter Theatre, Nelson

19/10/2013 - 19/10/2013

Baycourt X-Space, Tauranga

01/11/2013 - 02/11/2013

Summerhall, Edinburgh, Scotland

09/08/2014 - 24/08/2014

Isaac Theatre Royal, The Gloucester Room, Christchurch

05/09/2015 - 06/09/2015

The Pumphouse Theatre, Takapuna, Auckland

05/03/2016 - 06/03/2016

Q Theatre Loft, 305 Queen St, Auckland

11/03/2016 - 13/03/2016

BATS Theatre, The Propeller Stage, 1 Kent Tce, Wellington

19/04/2016 - 23/04/2016

SIT Centrestage Theatre, Invercargill

07/05/2016 - 08/05/2016

Circa Two, Circa Theatre, 1 Taranaki St, Waterfront, Wellington

10/07/2018 - 21/07/2018

MTG Century Theatre, 1 Tennyson St, Napier

27/10/2018 - 27/10/2018

Auckland Arts Festival 2016

Edinburgh Fringe 2014

Capital E National Arts Festival

Christchurch Arts Festival 2015

Hawkes Bay Arts Festival 2018

Southland Festival of the Arts 2016

Tauranga Arts Festival 2013

Nelson Arts Festival 2013

Production Details



A duck strikes up an unlikely friendship with death, and a strangely heart-warming story unfolds.The superb use of masks, puppets and objects allows the play to deal with a difficult subject in a way that is elegant, straightforward, and thought-provoking.

Based on the internationally celebrated book by Wolf Erlbruch, Duck, Death and the Tulip will intrigue and enchant both children and adults.

“There are many books written and illustrated for children, some are good, some are bad, some like Duck, Death and the Tulip are exceptional. The subject matter is challenging but at the same time it has been described as “the best book I could have read”. I read the book and gave it to others to read. As I read, the adaptation filled my head and it wasn’t very long before I was sitting down imagining the stage and working with actors to workshop the book. Duck, Death and the Tulip is largely an illustrated book, it has few words and allows children a freedom of interpretation. When I was five years old, my brother, one year older than me died. I wish that I had been able to read Duck, Death and the Tulip then, it would have enabled me to understand the many questions I had. Duck, Death and the Tulip, will hopefully explain to young children a little more about the world around them.” – Peter Wilson

“The response to our English translation of this book has been extraordinary, in New Zealand, Australia, the UK and America. It has shown itself to be of international importance, supported and promoted by children’s writers including Kate De Goldi, Patrick Ness, Meg Rosoff and Anthony Browne. We are proud to have first presented it to the English market, with Catherine Chidgey’s very successful translation.

“In New Zealand, it was a much debated book on the librarians’ intranet site, with stories of children taking it into the playground, taking it home to their parents – and talking about it.

“It is a gentle and philosophical book, which asks many questions but does not purport to give any answers. It is religiously neutral. It is also startlingly original, and lends itself to a thoughtful stage performance.

“To me, Duck Death and the Tulip has all the makings of good theatre – it is visual, original and provocative in a gentle and beautiful way – and funny. It is an internationally significant story with a strong connection to New Zealand. It is a book much used in New Zealand schools and has a wide public – we continue to sell the book to children and to adults.” – Julia Marshall, Gecko Press

Education Dates: Mon 18 – Fri 22 March
Public Show: 10am Sat 23 March
Venue: Downstage Theatre
Age: 4 – 8 years
Duration: 40 minutes

Tauranga Arts Festival 2013

WHEN Friday 1st November, 01:00pm
Friday 1st November, 06:00pm
Saturday 2nd November, 01:00pm
Saturday 2nd November, 06:00pm

WHERE X Space (Baycourt)

TICKETS Adults $15 (TECT $12)
Children $10 (TECT $8)
Booking fees apply

Edinburgh Fringe 2014
https://tickets.edfringe.com/whats-on/duck-death-and-the-tulip

CHRISTCHURCH ARTS FESTIVAL 2015
5 & 6 September 2015
The Gloucester Room, Isaac Theatre Royal
Book www.ticketek.co.nz 0800 TICKETEK (842 538)

Auckland Arts Festival 2016

…one of those rare shows that equally delights toddlers and their parents, and reaches out to both. – Broadway Baby

The PumpHouse Theatre
Sat 5 March, 2016, 1:00am, 5:00pm
Sun 6 march 2016, 11:00am, 2:00pm
45mins
$12 – $20

Outstanding Theatre Award 2014 – Edinburgh Fringe Festival.
Recommended for ages 4 – 8
Warning: Contains themes of death and dying

You can also experience this at Q Loft

Wellington 2016

New Zealand’s own internationally acclaimed Little Dog Barking Children’s Theatre is playing Wellington, Lower Hutt & Kapiti during the April school holidays.

Wellington audiences will be treated to two productions by the company. Guji Guji plays at BATS Theatre in Wellington, Little Theatre in Lower Hutt and the Kapiti Playhouse in Paraparaumu in April along with a season of Death Duck and the Tulip at BATS.

Duck, Death and the Tulip – BATS Theatre, 1 Kent Tce, Wellington
Tuesday 19th April – Saturday 23rd April at 6pm.
Bookings for BATS at BATS Theatre via book@bats.co.nz or 04 802 4175

Southland Festival of the Arts 2016
SIT Centrestage Theatre
07 May 2016 – 08 May 2016
Adults $20, Children $10
6pm, (7 May),
1pm & 3.30pm (May 8)

2018 

CIRCA TWO
10 July – 21 July 2018
Tues – Sat 6.00pm  |  sun 4.30pm
all Tickets $12.50 | Family $40 (2 Adults 2 Children)
Bookings 1 Taranaki St Wellington | 04 801 7992 | circa.co.nz

Hawkes Bay Arts Festival 2018

MTG Century Theatre, Napier
Sat Oct 27th
11:00am
Adult:  $25
Concession:  $20
Child – 16 and under:  $15
BUY TICKETS


Performers: Shona McNeil and Peter Wilson  
2016: Peter Wilson and Kenny King 


Designer – Nicole Cosgrove
Puppet Designer – Sue Hill
Lighting Designer – Nigel Percy  


Theatre , Family , Children’s ,


45 mins

A theatrical gem for all ages

Review by Gemma Carroll 27th Oct 2018

This show is perfection in every way. Based on the book by Wolf Erlbruch, true theatre magic is created by the performances of Peter Wilson and Kenny King. Their light touch is supported by painterly props, costuming, puppetry, controlled lighting and throughout by Gareth Farr’s simple musical score: a repeated motif, that echoes in piano, single violin and a music box arrangement.

Direction by Nina Nawalowalo creates a visual choreographed symphony and soundscape that is profoundly touching. I feel tears forming even in the opening scene, at the sheer beauty of the duck and a snail, as they move in a Butoh-like dance across a black velvet plinth: the first hint of the closeness of death, as the duck stalks his prey.

The script is minimal, parred down to a koan-like philosophical dialogue, conveying the deepest yet gentlest of ideas, to adults and children alike. Suitcase props are a world of possibility; like magicians’ boxes, they reveal the unexpected.

We follow the duck on his journey, as he befriends Death. They share tea: the simple miming of which, is as soft and gentle as the velvety shape of the puppeteer. They comfort each other. They climb to the top of a tree – the tree of life perhaps – and ponder what things will look like after death.

Duck lies with Death. Duck dances with Death. And as the seasons turn with a fluttering of Autumn leaves, into the quiet fall of Winter’s snowflakes, Duck has his final scene with Death. Death holds Duck in his arms: the scene a poetic release without the need for words.

A trapdoor beneath one of two Japanese screens releases a long white silk that billows across the stage to become Duck’s shroud. The gentle chatter and giggling from the children quietens, as we all feel the poignancy of this final moment.

“That’s life,” says our friend Death and we know it. We know it not as fearful, but as a beautiful and mystical transition.

There are no clear answers to the questions we may have around death; this show quietly offers the concept that the unknown is not something to fear but something to behold.

Duck, Death and the Tulip is a theatrical gem for all ages. It is poignant, gentle, moving and sweet.

It is so rare, in the world we live in, for us to experience the quiet moments that this show offers. Even if you have no small child to take with you, just go and let the tears flow and remember the beauty of life’s small perfections. 

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Delightful performance built on a serious fact of life

Review by Margaret Austin 11th Jul 2018

“A show for 2-99 year olds” says the programme note describing Duck, Death & the Tulip. That’s quite a stretch, I observe, watching the mixed 6pm audience at Circa Two.

But it would be fair to say that Peter Wilson and director Nina Nawalowalo’s charming theatrical adaptation of the book of the same name, by Wolf Erlbruch, has something to say to all of us, no matter our age. That it functions on so many levels accounts in large part for its appeal.

Duck, a puppet, has a very long neck, a delightfully intrusive quack, and a lesson to learn. That lesson is contained in an unlikely but captivating friendship, and delivered in increments by the character Death. Entering with a suitcase and bearing the dead tulip of the title, this apparently innocuous old man in dressing gown and slippers, albeit with a pair of black gloves, has much to teach. His gentle, philosophical attitude to death with its inevitability underlies the action and the dialogue.

Puppeteer Kenneth King (Duck) and actor Peter Wilson (Death) make an effective pair, Duck’s innocence and at times amusing assertiveness contrasting with the unruffled quality of Death. A high point of the action is the taking of a cup of tea, prepared by Death and quaffed with cautious then growing appreciation by Duck. 

Music by Gareth Farr is beautifully appropriate. And the set, simply designed with its two heights, works well.  There’s a moon, a butterfly, a crow and a pond – all of which add to the delight of a performance that is built on a serious fact of life, and helps us to perceive that fact with greater calm and acceptance.  

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A must-see for all ages

Review by Sarah McCarthy 08th May 2016

Both tender and beautiful, funny and silly, Duck, Death and the Tulip is an otherworldly, philosophical journey into the depths of life itself – with puppets.   

Duck meets Death, and they become friends. “I’ve been waiting for you to notice me,” says Death, played beautifully both in puppet form and as a kindly, slightly silly old man in a dressing gown and slippers by maestro Peter Wilson. 

Duck learns that Death can be a friend, someone that walks with you through life and is a familiar, loving face at the end of all things.

As heartbreaking as it is playful, Duck … mirrors life, and gives parents a perfect, gentle language to use when facing the inevitable conversation with their children when a loved one dies – especially for those of us without a religious background or traditions. The story is adapted most faithfully by Wilson from a simply beautiful book, Duck, Death and the Tulip by Wolf Erlbruch, whose illustrations have provided a clear template for this show.

Our son, four and a-half, thoroughly enjoys himself, and that is in part because the play is created by true heroes of children’s theatre. Breaks in the action that at first glance appear to be fillers – a beautiful butterfly, a protracted moonrise and set – are instead a chance for the kids to have a wriggle, chatter and then settle down and refocus as the action continues.

Their attention is masterfully courted, with gags so practiced and true they are funny for everyone. The kids are belly-laughing at Duck’s indignant quacks (Kenny King manages to squeeze real eloquence into all of Duck’s utterances), and at a bit of gorgeous slapstick with a fish, while adults enjoy subtle cheeky wordplay.

Above all, parents feel their children were welcome and wanted at this show, in the hands of professionals who will guide our little ones through this experience. How else can a child learn how to behave at the theatre if he has not had the chance to misbehave at the theatre?

And this isn’t a show just for children. Full of beautiful allegories and moments of real philosophical power, it is a think piece, and perhaps a way to have a difficult conversation with yourself about dying.

And yes, as the story saddens there are some little ones who are upset, but I have always walked away from great theatre with tears in my eyes. And what this beautiful little play is trying to teach us is that it isn’t all smiles and superheroes; that there is sadness and stillness and that snow must fall. And that’s theatre, as it is life. A must-see for all ages. 

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Provokes many existential questions

Review by Ashleigh Pope 20th Apr 2016

Duck, Death and the Tulip, Peter Wilson’s stage adaptation of the same-titled children’s book by Wolf Erlbruch, broaches the topic of death with warmth and geniality. 

Directed by Nina Nawalowalo, this adaptation humanises Death by casting him as a character that switches between his human and puppet-form.

We first meet Duck, our playful and childlike protagonist, in a calm and dimly lit space as he explores his surroundings to a piece of gentle piano music by Gareth Farr reminiscent of a lullaby. The puppeteer’s skills are evidenced through the constant and precise movement of the puppets. Even while Duck is stationary, he breathes and looks around; this creates the illusion of life.

Duck excitedly jerks his head in all directions as he examines the world around him. He reacts to the nuances of his environment, quite literally stopping to smell the flowers. The audience remains entirely focused as we watch Duck, apart from the occasional giggles and mutterings of “that’s funny” from our younger members.

We then follow the blossoming friendship between Duck and the character, Death. Duck meets Death after he senses a presence around him. He peers around corners of the set, attempting to confront it and for a while, however, Death manages to avoid being seen. This surreal exchange is well rehearsed, and the way the puppeteers switch between fast and slow tempos results in a number of near-misses that creates tension for the audience; we expect at any moment for Duck to discover Death.

Eventually they find each other and Duck accepts the fact that Death is like his shadow — always there in case something happens to him. They then stay together for the remainder of the show, bonding over swimming in the pond, taking tea, and climbing a tree.

Duck and Death’s relationship, enables the audience to visually explore the natural life-cycle through a range of stage pictures that detail everyday occurrences. For example, Death, perched at the front of the stage on a suitcase, prepares a cup of tea for himself and Duck as Duck inquisitively observes the process from a distance. They then mindfully drink it, exaggerating their responses to hold the focus. As Duck and Death sip the tea, their chests rise, they pause between each sip for a vocalised “aaaaaaaaahhhhhhh” of enjoyment before the next.

The dream-like imagery is sustained through the use of lighting. The lights are positioned directly above the subject, using deep shadows and bright contrast to highlight the subjects’ features. This creates unnatural shadows which reinforce the illusory aesthetic.

Duck, Death and the Tulip provokes many existential questions, and it does so without imposing any religious or nonreligious ideologies. While initially the character of Death is a confronting presence, there is something sweet and comforting about him that we grow to accept. Death is normalised through the day-to-day activities that Death and Duck participate in together — reminiscent of Grandfather-Grandson bonding. The audience experiences Death in his dutiful yet humanised form, providing some grounding for when we have no choice but to experience death. 

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Sweet tale could be a quack-up

Review by Janet McAllister 14th Mar 2016

The original Duck, Death and the Tulip is an exceptionally stunning “sophisticated” picture book, written by Wolf Erlbruch and famously translated by Wellington’s Gecko Press.

The makers of this puppet theatre show, then, have given themselves a challenge: they’ve attempted to adapt what is primarily adult/young adult literature for 4-8-year-olds. [More

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Faultless, enjoyable, challenging and expertly made

Review by Lexie Matheson ONZM 06th Mar 2016

The Auckland Arts Festival plays a very special role in the cultural milieu that is the diverse and ever-evolving city of Auckland.  Once almost exclusively an opportunity to celebrate international acts of quality visiting our shores, it has rapidly become a far more egalitarian event with New Zealand productions reaching, and sometime exceeding, the excellence of those from overseas.

It‘s also exciting to note that the festival hasn’t forgotten the younger audiences with a number of shows targeted at families and the little ones who will make up the audiences of tomorrow.  Once such show is Little Dog Barking Theatre Company’s charming work for the under tens, Duck, Death and the Tulip.

Based on a children’s book by German illustrator and writer Wolf Erlbruch and adapted with great authenticity for the stage by Peter Wilson, Duck, Death and the Tulip has already had an extensive performance history, having followed its premiere in Wellington three years ago with regional festival spots, a season at the Edinburgh Festival, a tour of Southern England and even ventured as far as China. 

Peter Wilson, director of the company, established Little Dog Barking in 2010 with the aim of creating innovative and original theatre for preschool and early school age audiences.  Much of the company’s work is performed in community centres and schools, ensuring that the child audiences are housed in an environment they are comfortable with when first experiencing live theatre. 

The audience that gathers at The Pumphouse Theatre early on a Saturday afternoon are a disparate bunch made up mostly of Pakeha New Zealanders, the majority of whom were under ten and chaperoned, with a couple of notable exceptions, by Mums and Nanas. Perhaps it is the beautiful weather that sees the auditorium only two thirds full for a show that my thirteen year old son assures me, without hesitation, ‘certainly deserves full houses.’ I agree, equally wholeheartedly. 

The stage that greets us is in darkness with the exception of two book end, hinged screens, one of either side of the stage, that look like many-paned windows.  It doesn’t seem to bother the audience that there is no programme, with most parents and grandparents arriving armed with the excellent arts festival brochure which informs us that the key creatives involved in making this delightful work are New Zealand performing arts royalty, with director Nina Nawalowalo and composer Gareth Farr being responsible for much of the magic.

As the house lights go down in the auditorium a welcoming sun appears in the sky above a black draped two level platform centre stage.  A wistful solo piano plays and Duck, long neck first, appears on the top level. The first non-musical sound we hear is a fantastic quack which comes from Duck and which causes great mirth among the littlies who fall in love with this magical – and magically manipulated – puppet immediately.

The puppets that people this narrative are uniformly splendid and they include among their number a fish, a butterfly, a fox, a short-lived snail and, of course, the imposing figure of Death himself. 

The story line is simple. Duck lives happily by his pond. Death appears and we know immediately that Duck is not long for this world.  Beside the pond, Tulip happily waves in the breeze until Death arbitrarily uproots him.  That’s life, after all. 

The puppet Death, as might be expected, is a skull beautifully dressed in a long coat faithfully replicating Erlbruch’s illustrations from the original book as indeed are all the characters.  Duck asks Death if he has come to take him away and Death, ever the philosopher, replies enigmatically ‘I’ve been with you always.’  A good lesson there for the kids: you never get a straight answer from Death, but the message hits home that death – real death – strolls at our side from the first moment of conception.

The relationship between Death and Duck is amiable and charming and, just when we think we’ve got a handle on the whole puppet thing, the puppet Death is replaced by the full-sized man Death and an entirely new relationship begins to evolve.

Death invites Duck to have a cup of tea, and the ceremonials and ritual that accompany this charming rite firmly cement the bond between the two.  Duck, initially reticent, accepts the offer, discovers that the tea is ‘really quite nice’ and the two chatter away like the life-long chums they truly are. By this point in the show the parable is deeply embedded in our understanding and we know that soon Duck will be taken by Death and we are resigned to this.

Duck invites Death to come and explore his pond and, despite his own reservations – “I really don’t like water” – Death obliges. When he finally leaves the pond he is freezing and shivering on the ground. Duck offers to warm Death up which causes a serious ripple of mirth.

There are moments where the unhurried and measured pace of the piece allows us time to ask the deeper questions posed by Wilson’s narrative such as “how does Death get cold?” But such metaphysical ponderings are quickly supplanted by comedy with Duck suggesting that Death will “catch his death” and, having aced that laugh even with the wee ones, he caps it by adding that Death looks like “death warmed up”. 

Death has a sleep as the moon waxes and wanes and on waking there is a charming discussion about heaven – the place of the angels – and ‘that hot place the other ducks have spoken of: hell.  Death replies that he doesn’t know what happens after people pass away and the topic is immediately changed to “What shall we do today?” 

The answer is, as it is with all good answers, simple: “Let’s climb a tree.”  From the top of the tree, topical local references have been inserted, and Duck and Death acknowledge the Sky Tower, the Bombay Hills and, in the distance, the mighty Waikato River. 

Duck is cold and Death suggests they dance to warm him up. By now the audience is fully engaged with both the narrative and the parable as Death sits with Duck in his arms and it begins to snow. When the snow stops Duck has quietly passed away. We notice it, cherish the moment, but there is no big fuss and the silence in the theatre, while profound, isn’t maudlin in any way. 

As if by magic a river of silk appears, Death lays Duck on the river and his body is enchantingly returned to his beloved pond – but not before Death has placed Tulip, who we have almost forgotten, on Ducks cold body. 

This delightful parable delicately exposes children to the concept of death and opens up opportunities for discussion within families.  Possibly the most poignant moment occurs, as perhaps it should, at the very end of the play when Death tweaks the one hour performance into even sharper focus by breaking the fourth wall to deliver his final line – “That’s life” – directly to the audience. 

Almost as a coda, as Death leaves the stage, a new Tulip rises in place of the old one and life goes on. 

The actor/puppeteers Peter Wilson and Kenny King are quite exceptional and, along with director Nawalowalo and composer Farr, they have crafted a beautiful narrative around a very tricky subject.  My family is noticeably quiet for some time following the performance and this speaks silent volumes for the success of the work. 

The actors return to the stage following the performance and are available to those who wished to stay to discuss the piece. Hosted with warmth and care by TAPAC Artistic Director Margaret-Mary Hollins, the discussion would seem to be a vital part of the process of resolving any questions, the children in particular, might have after a work of this nature. 

From a simple theatrical perspective the work is faultless, enjoyable, challenging and expertly made.

Check it out – it moves to the city’s Q Theatre during the week and details can be found online on the festival website.
 – – – – – – – – – – – –
PS:  Auckland is rich with performing arts diversity this early in 2016 with the venue du jour being Dr Miles Gregory’s extraordinary Pop-up Globe and the plethora of Shakespeare productions on offer in that extraordinary venue unquestionably the hot ticket items. 

It’s certainly hard for Joe and Josephine Publique to fathom why the Pop-up Globe, with its unanticipated blend of novelty seated alongside a plethora of unique home grown productions of Shakespeare’s finest works isn’t itself included in the festival but I guess there was politics involved and the answer to this conundrum sits, as is so often inferred, well above my pay grade.  There can be no doubt, however, that the night-after-night full houses that flock to the cockpit in Bard’s Yard must be affecting the audiences for festival shows and some fusion of projects would seem to have been obvious, wise and prudent. 

From Joe and Jo’s perspective, though, it’s very exciting because traditionally the more events there are on in town the more people go out.

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Entrancing

Review by Erin Harrington 05th Sep 2015

Duck, Death and the Tulip is a philosophical and moving fable about the emergent friendship between a duck and his own personal Death. Based on a German children’s book, it gently and agnostically deals with the way that death is simply a part of life. Little Dog Barking Theatre Company present this story with compassion and affection, utilising a combination of puppetry and live action, augmented with some charming and occasionally bittersweet music from Gareth Farr. 

The production design is wonderfully minimal and retains the sparse storybook quality of its source material. The puppets, which are predominantly operated by Kenny King, are beautifully designed by Sue Hill and are very expressive; I am particularly fond of the skeletal yet genial puppet version of Death, who is played ‘in person’ by story adaptor Peter Wilson. Nicole Cosgrove’s simple set bounds the stage with what appear to be backlit rice paper screens, adding a soft warmth to the setting, and the individual set pieces, such as the sun and moon, are lovingly rendered.

The audience, which skews quite old and quite young, are largely entranced with the effects created through the deceptive simplicity of the puppetry. So much children’s theatre bombards the senses, but this asks for, and receives, close and quiet attention.

On one hand I think that this show is delightful, and it finds a really satisfying balance between sweetness, measured pacing, and the contemplative nature of its subject matter. On the other, there’s something funny about the tone that I can’t quite put my finger on; my companion calls it ‘good, but weird’. There’s something about the abruptness of Duck’s character, including its broad Kiwi accent, and the almost British pantomime quality of Death, that doesn’t seem to gel for me, especially when local details sit alongside more European ones.

I suspect that at least part of this is related to the space and the way that we are asked to engage with the action. I am very fond of the multi-purpose Gloucester Room in the newly refurbished Isaac Theatre Royal, and for Christchurch Arts Festival shows it’s been converted from a flexible conference and seminar space into a very serviceable black box theatre with a raised stage.

Unfortunately, for this show, the room’s flat seating means that it’s not an ideal space. Much of the action makes very good use of levels, but some beautiful and elegiac moments, particularly at the end once Duck’s time is up and Death must do what he has to, happen so low to the ground that it’s almost impossible to see what’s happening, especially for children.

There is also something funny going on with the lighting plot, for sometimes elements that seem to need illumination are in darkness and vice versa. A pity, really, because this gentle story is well worth seeing by children as well as grownups, like myself, who appreciate the magic and emotional honesty of children’s theatre.

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Sheer poetry through puppetry

Review by Dione Joseph 09th Aug 2014

For a show that is targeted at children, Duck, Death and the Tulip has more than a few adults in the audience. Unusual? Not really. Because one of the magical things about tracing the inevitable encounter between life and death is that it caters to the young and the young at heart. 

Dying is often a subject that parents (in the past and even today) have supposedly shied away from discussing, especially with young children. But as Death himself points out, it really is Life that should be held responsible for ‘colds and whatever else ducks catch’ during this time on Earth.

Death is simply waiting. To be seen.

The story by Wolf Erlbruch is lyrical; not didactic or polemical. And this adaptation for the stage by Peter Wilson, directed by Nina Nawalowalo, is sheer poetry through puppetry.

Against a shimmering sun a world comes into focus. Duck gobbles down a grub for breakfast, a lone tulip provides her with a moment of euphoria and she makes a new friend who, despite his rather morbid appearance, is actually ‘rather nice’. And bringing this narrative to life is Gareth Farr’s exquisite composition: an ideal accompaniment, giving the story a tenderness that is appreciated in the subtleties of the music. 

It is an example of children’s theatre that raises and challenges the expectation of what theatre for young audiences should be – and how it should be made.

Founder of Little Dog Barking Theatre and also chief puppeteer for Death, Peter Wilson is clearly dedicated to offering a special experience of theatre to his audiences, especially children. For that reason Death is not only a morbid puppet dressed in tweeds but also a kind, gentle man. One who graciously hands Duck (much to her surprise) a cup of tea and befriends her as they take a jaunt to the local pond; scale a very high tree and cuddle up after their gallivanting to have a snooze as the seasons change.

But this is not a sad story. Or even a fatalistic narrative. It is a deliciously curious, honest and at times simply irreverent tale about a duck, death and yes, a tulip too.

And it is the humour that makes this 45 minute production both powerful yet poignant. One of the most memorable moments is when, after taking a dip in the pond, Death, rather chilly and shivering, is gently told with a cuddle that his new feathered friend prefers him ‘warmed up’ because otherwise… he might catch his ‘death of cold’! 

The team under the direction of Nina Nawalowalo work together brilliantly. Wilson’s co-puppeteer Shona McKee McNeil is equally proficient and together they have a lightness of touch that brings their puppets to life. In addition to displaying a range of versatile skills with Duck, McNeil also brings flavour to the piece with a distinctive Scottish accent, adding an air of local authenticity as she points out the highlights of the Edinburgh city to her distinguished visitor. 

And while the seasons are changing we have one character, quiet and unspoken who adds, without any loquaciousness whatsoever, the perfect beginning and end. Tulip. Single and solitary, the aphrodisiac to Duck’s senses, her companion on the final journey she never utters a word. She is simply present. 

But that is not the end. Because so delicately arranged is this glimpse of life that as the sun once more turns to smile on this little world, Tulip once again returns. And so the cycle begins. 

I believe that there is no one better to review a children’s show than a child. And Fraser (7) and Alice (3) Duffy displayed no ambiguity in their opinion: “We loved it!” they chimed. 

This three-word wrap was followed by a few seconds of serious contemplation before the elder of my two volunteer reviewers quipped “Especially the skeleton puppet and the music”. 

If there were any questions as to the suitability of Duck Death and the Tulip – well, from the mouths of babes, the show has been given its official stamp of approval.

FOUR STARS
Note:  The Star rating is not a precedent for Theatreview; it is a requirement of the Edinburgh Fringe.

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Sensitive and magical

Review by Keran Brady 20th Oct 2013

This stunning piece of Children’s theatre is a beautiful and faithful adaptation of Wolf Erlbaruch’s story of Duck’s life. The telling is a combination of puppetry and acting performed by two performers. Peter Wilson is a puppeteer who also plays Death.  Shona McKee McNeil is the voice and movement of all the other puppets and Duck.  

We see Duck start out on her life, meeting and befriending Death on the way, sharing a cup of tea, going swimming, climbing a tree.  The two characters discuss life and death including where we go and how.  Death picks the tulip because he loves the flower, causing its death as soon as it is tugged from the ground.  This is a metaphor for the whole play. 

The performance seamlessly combines Death as a puppet, beautifully crafted by Susan Hill, with large white skull head and glittering eyes and Wilson as a ‘human’ Death who interacts and enjoys time with Duck.  The tea party is well choreographed and highlights Duck’s fears of befriending Death.  Then Duck chooses to take Death swimming which offers real humour with a fish slapping Death in the face whilst swimming by.  When Death shivers with cold the ‘gallows’ humour really comes to the fore: “You’ll catch your death” then “I’d rather you were death warmed up!” 

The topic is sensitively dealt with and at the end we are sure Death is sad at Duck’s passing as he gently places her on a ‘river’ of fabric to slide to the other side – sideways along the stage.  Her lifeless body slowly disappears.  Her death, even though we knew it was coming is still a shock and brings a tear to most adults’ eyes. 

Peter Wilson poignantly portrays Death as a kindly, humorous man with white hair and twinkly eyes. He offers no answers to Duck’s questions other than he is responsible for death alone, not what happens afterwards. The transitions from actor to puppet are smooth and totally believable.  The Death puppet is cute rather than scary. 

Shona McKee McNeil scurries around the stage in silence operating not only the puppets but all the props and set.  She makes snow fall as Duck dies, to show the last season of her life.  Her magic is to make it all seem to happen without her.  Her skill is often to speak for Duck whilst operating another puppet or setting the tree, which she does so well. 

The children in the audience are enthralled by the magical performances; the adults also. But it is Gareth Farr’s music that really brings the whole piece together.  At the start I feel the volume is a little high but this is rectified and we are able to hear Duck’s soft Scottish burr.  The music reflects the situations in the story perfectly without being mushy. 

The lighting, operated by Jason Longstaff and created by Nigel Percy, is a further element in making the play work so effectively.  The sun has a lovely yellow glow, Duck’s journey is lit across two puppet stages as well as lighting only the front of the stage so the puppeteer can be hidden. 

At the Question and Answer session after the show, director Nina Nawalowalo describes her love of magic and how this performance offers an opportunity to create this with both puppets and acting.  The acting is used to truly develop the relationship between Death and the Duck.  When he places the beautiful tulip on Duck’s body we know he loves her.   His final line “That’s life!” is simultaneously sad and funny. 

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Entrancing storytelling with impeccable puppetry

Review by John Smythe 19th 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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