OWLS DO CRY
Q Theatre, Rangatira, Auckland
17/10/2019 - 02/11/2019
05/10/2019 - 06/10/2019
Beloved New Zealand author Janet Frame’s novel will be brought to life on stage for the first time ever. Filled with fierce heart and visual splendour, Owls Do Cry is considered one of New Zealand’s landmark novels and is making its world premiere in Frame’s childhood hometown of Ōamaru (4 and 5 October), before heading to Auckland for a full season at Q Theatre (17 October – 2 November).
There’s a special delight that comes with opening a book for the first time. There’s a magic to the mystery that keeps the pages turning, although you’re not sure what happens next. Red Leap brings this sense of intrigue alive to the celebrated story about small town New Zealand, told through the Withers siblings and their lives following a family tragedy.
Red Leap’s adaption of Owls Do Cry uses multimedia such as live music, song, poetry, dynamic movement and AV to celebrate Frame’s work. Rather than creating a direct narrative staging of Owls Do Cry, Red Leap have taken inspiration from Frame’s rich imagery and poetry to create a multi-disciplinary dreamscape. This extraordinary tale is transformed into an exciting devised performance through their signature physical and visual styles, capturing and revealing her still pertinent insights into society.
Some of Aotearoa’s best creative minds have come together from a love of literature to explore the themes of her novel, of resilience through struggle and of living life with open hands and hearts. They bring with them the treasure of books and the pleasure of reading. Red Leap’s Artistic Director Julie Nolan leads an all-female creative team to bring this extraordinary piece of New Zealand literature to the stage. Award-winning choreographer Malia Johnston (RUSHES, Movement of the Human) directs, with Toi Whakaari’s Director of Actor Training Heather Timms as dramaturg and Penny Fitt leading design.
The cast is made up of an incredible host of performers: Ross McCormack (Triumphs and Other Alternatives, System), Margaret-Mary Hollins (Last Legs, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night), Hannah Lynch (RUSHES, The Visit), Red Leap Theatre’s Associate Director Ella Becroft (Dust Pilgrim, In Dark Places), Arlo Gibson (Step Dave, Mating in Captivity), and Comfrey Sanders (Jekyll and Hyde, Shortland Street – The Musical).
Gain an understanding of why Frame’s work is so thoroughly dear to our literary scene, the heart, warmth and acuity of her stories and how the arts recaptures our imaginations.
OWLS DO CRY plays
Ōamaru, 4th 7PM & 5th 4PM Octoberas part of the Waitaki Arts Festival
Ōamaru Opera House
Auckland, 17th October – 2nd November, 7.30PM
- Artistic Director: Julie Nolan
- Director: Malia Johnston
- Dramaturg: Heather Timms
- Devised and performed by: Ross McCormack, Margaret Mary Hollins, Ella Becroft, Hannah Lynch, Comfrey Sanders, Arlo Gibson
- Set and Costume Designer: Penny Fitt
- Sound Designer: Eden Mulholland
- Lighting Designer: Rachel Marlow
- AV Designer: Owen McCarthy
- Produced by: Red Leap Theatre
Theatre , Physical , Performance installation , Multi-discipline ,
75 mins, no interval
Dancing to the Frame of the beat
Review by Paul Simei-Barton 23rd Oct 2019
Red Leap’s passionate engagement with Janet Frame’s novel Owls Do Cry honours the diverse experience of readers as they encounter a haunting vision of small-town New Zealand, seen through the eyes of outcasts and misfits.
Instead of an adaptation, the show throws up a kaleidoscope of deeply evocative images which highlight the imaginative processes that take place in the minds of readers.
Those familiar with the novel will easily identify the characters and scenes which are re-imagined with stunning visual panache. For those who have not read the book or are dredging up hazy memories of English literature lessons … [More]
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Singing from the Dead Room
Review by Cynthia Lam 21st Oct 2019
Based on celebrated New Zealand author Janet Frame’s first full-length novel published in 1957, Owls Do Cry is an evocative and exciting theatrical rendition by Red Leap Theatre. Led by Artistic Director Julie Nolan and directed by Malia Johnston, the events that plague the Withers family in small town provincial New Zealand are translated and abstracted onto the stage. Employing a mix of stunning visuals, multi-media, dance, live music and song, the play is a non-literal, metatheatical and visceral adaptation that celebrates the possibilities of live theatre. The audience are handed copies of Frame’s book at the start of the performance and asked to tap and strum them, until finally words start falling on a screen and the story begins. [More]
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Superb performers, perfect design, infuses with energy and delight
Review by Raewyn Whyte 19th Oct 2019
Red Leap Theatre’s astonishing, evocative tribute to Janet Frame’s iconic 1957 novel, Owls Do Cry, is sure to join the roster of the great works of New Zealand theatre. It provides the kind of richly immersive theatre experience that transports you heart and soul to some other zone of aliveness, satisfying you in ineffable ways – the kind of experience you keep going back to the theatre for, despite the rarity of such experience.
In parallel with the ground-breaking literary approach at the heart of Frame’s novel, where words at times clash and tumble, and one person’s richly detailed momentary experience expands to eclipse their awareness of others, Red Leap have broken new ground in their approach to devising new work. Under the direction of Malia Johnston in collaboration with the cast, artistic director Julie Nolan and a superb creative production team, they have developed an approach that is new for them all.
Rather than re-tell the story of the troubled post-war working-class Withers family of Waimaru, which will be familiar to readers of the novel, Red Leap has created instead a rich non-narrative portrait of a six-member family whose lives inextricably intertwine. There is little in the way of straightforward text, rather they provide telling glimpses of each persona and explore the family dynamics through songs and expansive movement exchanges which are enriched by symbolic content.
There is joy and delight, spirited behaviour and laughter along with moments of bleakness and despair. And while the performers represent the family, those personas are infused with the performers’ personal responses to the book and all it has brought with it, bringing an intriguing sense of the depicted events as somehow not connected to a particular period of time.
Mother/Mum/Amy (Margaret-Mary Hollins) and Father/Dad/Bob (Ross McCormack) have a combative yet close and loving relationship. They grapple and clutch, push and pull at one another, taking their tussles to the floor, but they also relax into cuddles and occasional waltzing. He is vigorous and embodies Kiwi manhood, wanting the kids to do things his way. In an extraordinary solo, combining movement and fragments of speech and song, he runs through a flickering array of stereotypical masculine behaviours, as if trying to find the best fit. She is a tower of strength for the family but that strength is eaten away by their constant demands. In a rare solo moment, she breaks out into light-hearted, frivolous capering.
Three sisters spend much of the time together, a collective source of noise and disorder, delight and making do. They are ever-hopeful that better things will come their way, but they know how to take pleasure in the smallest things and are able to sustain their rich imaginations. Francie (Hannah Lynch) is the oldest and bursts into song at a moment’s notice. Daphne (Comfrey Sanders) is the middle sister, confidante to Hannah and encourager of Chicks (Ella Becroft), the youngest. They challenge their father but also know just how to get on his good side, and they generally support their mother.
Their brother Toby (Arlo Gibson) is a lanky streak with a talent for unexpected actions and putting on strange voices. He and his father are constantly renegotiating the balance of power and he tends to be a bit of a loner when it comes to his sisters.
Local issues and social concerns which impact on the family’s life are part of the aural tapestry, mixed into the lyrics of songs written by the cast and musical director Eden Mulholland. Poverty and the challenge of putting food on the table and paying the bills; the impossibility of getting ahead; local politics and the planned development of the town, mental health, hospital visits, doctor’s decisions; the weather, keeping the children in school, hunting for recyclable treasure in the local dump…. These are all touched on.
Projections by Owen McCarthy play across the set at times, spewing words to overlay the stage with the many themes and issues raised in the production, creating a hoe-down atmosphere for the family’s dancing, or spreading an eerie black fog of death. Costumes by Penny Fitt are simple, low key, an array of sweatshirts, woolly jumpers, flannel shirts, t-shirts and track-pants worn, discarded, shared, swapped. Three large black trunks, six chairs, and a series of hanging microphones are used to great effect, along with hundreds of copies of Owls Do Cry, the book. The performers are superb, the lighting (Rachel Marlow) , sound and design perfect for the event, and the dramaturgy (Heather Timms) exquisitely considered.
So much is packed into the 75 minutes of performance that each audience member is bound to come away with a different sense of the whole, along with an infusion of energy and a feeling of delight.
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"like a quilt with the waves tucked under"
Review by Dr Ian Lochhead 06th Oct 2019
Readers of Owls Do Cry will know that the book’s title comes from Ariel’s song in Shakespeare’s late play, The Tempest, so it is perhaps inevitable that Janet Frame’s first novel would eventually be adapted for the stage. This daunting task has been undertaken by Auckland’s Red Leap Theatre Company by a creative team led by artistic director Julie Nolan and director Malia Johnston. The project began with the intention to stage Frame’s autobiography, An Angel at My Table, already adapted for film by Jane Campion,but attention then shifted to Owls Do Cry. Although the directors’ initial thoughts were to make a literal adaptation of the book they soon recognised that the elusive and poetic nature of the novel would be impossible to adapt to the stage in any conventional sense and they wisely opted for a loosely structured imaginative response to the book. The six performers are not assigned to individual characters in the novel although inevitably some become more identified with certain roles; Margaret Mary Hollins and Ross McCormack as the parents, Amy and Bob Withers, Arlo Gibson as their epileptic son Toby; Ella Becroft, Hannah Lynch and Comfrey Sanders as the three Withers girls, Francie, Daphne and Chicks.
The production opens with a bare stage with cut-out figures of the six performers placed against the back curtain. They in turn take their place in front of their representations before advancing together in a sung invocation to the fictional Waimaru that forms the setting for Frame’s novel. From here the work evolves in a series of linked episodes that evoke rather than relate the troubled yet magical world inhabited by the Withers family. Spoken word, song and dance are woven seamlessly together while Eden Mulholland’s sound design, in which the sounds of the natural world, so important to Frame, are combined with electronic and acoustic components, provides a connecting thread throughout. Books and words are everywhere in this production, flying through the air, secreted within clothing, cascading as visual projections across the backcloth. Books even invade the auditorium, bringing the audience into the work, making us complicit as the watchful eyes of the inhabitants of Waimaru who warily observe the disintegration of the Withers family.
In a central episode, baggy grey pullovers act as a metaphor for the interconnected yet separate lives of the family as garments are shared and exchanged in a tangle of bodies. Individual identities disappear and reassert themselves as the pressure to conform and the desire to assert independence wax and wane. In another telling sequence Rachel Marlow’s lighting design makes visible the fracturing of personality as bodies are fragmented and shards of light spin off into space. Prop boxes roll on and off stage as part of the action, disgorging their contents to surprising effect, acting as cages inside which the characters are locked. Safely stowed in boxes, transgressive behaviour is controlled and out of sight.
In performance, Owls Do Cry almost seems to be a work of improvisation, a feature that surely derives from the collaborative way in which the work has evolved, with all members of the creative team participating. There was no sign in this first performance of any tentativeness or uncertainty; directors and cast have honed their performances to achieve the kind of freedom that only meticulous preparation and complete confidence in one another can achieve. Just as Frame’s text offers multiple readings, it seems certain that future performances will discover different lights and shades of meaning.
Is it necessary to have read Owls Do Cry before attending a performance? Probably not, but you will almost certainly want to read it once you have. Beg, borrow or buy a copy after the performance (but resist the temptation to steal one). You will understand why I say this once you have seen the show. Janet Frame’s text is now sixty-two years old and is imperishable, but Red Leap’s dramatisation of Owls Do Cry has a strictly limited life; see it while you can.
Seeing this production in Oamaru’s splendidly restored Opera House gave Owls Do Cry an additional resonance and Red Leap Theatre Company and the Waitaki Arts Festival are to be congratulated for bringing the work to Frame’s home town. The large local audience welcomed her home. The name Frame chose for her fictional family suggests that they, like all things, will come to dust, but in reality she has ensured that they will live on as long as the sea that fringes Waimaru/Oamaru lies about the town “like a quilt with the waves tucked under”.
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Incredibly innovative and stimulating sharing of imagination’s inner light
Review by Terry MacTavish 06th Oct 2019
Trash or Treasure: which is it? Will we recognise real treasure? True artists like Janet Frame, like Red Leap Theatre, help us become crap detectors; become treasure seekers.
It is several years since John Smythe expressed on Theatreview (as an afterthought to his Dust Pilgrim review) his desire for Red Leap to tackle a New Zealand classic. Here it is, the sublime choice of Owls Do Cry, Janet Frame’s first novel that so quickly became a classic; the story based on her own deprived childhood in a sour, smug provincial town, her own experience of heartless mental institutions, perhaps grim, yet illuminated by her joy in nature and insight into the human heart.
The lovely Oamaru Opera House, for more than a hundred years a symbol of the town’s prosperous respectability, throbs with anticipation. Red Leap has crowd-funded $7,000 to bring the production here, to Frame’s only slightly fictional Waimaru, for the premiere. Consequently this is not your usual Red Leap audience, friends and followers, but locals who are decidedly possessive when it comes to their famous daughter, however harshly her family once was treated. One group, though, has driven all the way from Twizel, which apparently boasts an excellent bookshop.
Perhaps this audience will expect an authentic 1940s railway cottage set, clearly delineated characters, a narrative-driven piece of realism, dialogue meticulously lifted from the novel. From radical Red Leap?? No way. We are about to be challenged by aggressively physical, visual theatre as astonishing and innovative as Frame’s writing was, when in 1957 Owls do Cry was received with as much bewilderment as admiration.
The six actors are on stage as we enter, standing precisely, eerily, in front of projections of themselves, while isolated words float and disappear into the dark behind them. Suddenly they step forward, under microphones that tremble overhead like nervous bungy jumpers, and burst into song: ‘Down in Waimaru’. They’re really good.
A black box is wheeled on – treasure chest or rubbish bin? – and from it we are bombarded with copies of Owls Do Cry, taught without words to use them as drums, fading to finger beats like rain, while pulsating music takes over, the cast becomes a tight hip hop crew and the powerful sound system explodes into thunder.
The astonished old theatre vibrates, the ornate cream balconies curving in as if to compensate for the bleak black box stage, the minimalist props and actors clad in yoga pants, sloppy black jerseys, and sometimes just underwear. One man suddenly strips the other to his briefs to use his back as a map to explain Oamaru, his spine the road that divides the town. It is original, it is apt, and it is extremely funny. The delighted audience laps it up.
But no complacency is permitted. Just as we think, so okay, it’s going to be contemporary dance, a spider-like creature enters: 24 legs composed of chairs the actors seize to seat themselves, breaking the fourth wall with chatty assurance. “Well, you’ve got us all. We’ve got a big hole and we’ve got to fill it. Bury the anger. Build a bridge.” The cheerful platitudes become the townsfolk gossiping about the Withers family: “A family like that, an accident waiting to happen.”
They are talking of a tragic death in the despised ‘different’ Withers family, its pitifully brave mother trying to bring beauty to the lives of her children despite grinding poverty; despite a bullying husband damaged by war; a son, Toby, who is shamefully epileptic; a daughter, Daphne, who is mentally fragile; another, Francie, who suffers a shocking accident. Frame transmutes the more prosaic death of her actual sister Myrtle by drowning into a shattering consequence of the Withers children’s quest for treasure.
Ironically, the delight of the children’s lives is the rubbish dump, where they scavenge among other people’s cast-offs for ‘treasure’, anything from old boots to a smelly book of fairy tales. Red Leap takes up this entrancing theme, the actors gleefully dismissing most of their surroundings, audience included, as trash. Usually but not always in role as the Withers family, they do not attempt to make ordered sense of the novel, but instead explore our inchoate world with the same freedom of expression Frame employs.
The actors – Ross McCormack, Margaret Mary Hollins, Ella Becroft, Hannah Lynch, Comfrey Sanders and Arlo Gibson – are superb, mostly new to Red Leap, but clearly imbued with the principles and spirit of this innovative theatre company led by brilliant artistic director Julie Nolan, and committed to a project to which they have all contributed. Directed by Malia Johnston, with dramaturg Heather Timms and designer Penny Fitt, this theatrical Owls Do Cry began with collaboration, as each member of the company offered their own response.
The production values are altogether stunningly impressive. The projections and lighting intertwine in a love duet to create unforgettable illusions, such as rays of light evoking the electric shocks piercing the brain of Daphne/Janet, who is pinioned as for a crucifixion. Blackness actually appears to creep out from her head as the ‘treatment’ takes effect. Spine-chilling.
Eden Mulholland’s sound design is extraordinary, providing a rich base for some luscious singing, and dance that for me evokes Douglas Wright’s Black Milk – the provocative images, the performers’ curious self-awareness. The mics do indeed become bungy cords for the actors to use and abuse with astonishing creativity.
The black chests offer flexible staging and opportunities for startling effects. After the show I hear several contrasting but valid interpretations of the three actors struggling to escape as they are forced down into the chests by the other three.
I am transfixed by the scene in which Margaret Mary Hollins, heart-breakingly marvellous as Mum, is devoured by her children – doesn’t some spider give her body as food for her young? – although what they drag out of her voluminous garments are copies of Owls Do Cry, now representing, perhaps, the knowledge of the past, each generation’s legacy to the next. Disturbingly the children are as destructive with the books as with their self-sacrificing mother.
This production, like all I have seen by Red Leap, is very much a team effort: the accomplished, energetic actors literally and figuratively supporting each other; circus meets Stanislavski. But Ella Becroft, Comfrey Sanders and Hannah Lynch as the daughters have their glittering moments also. As I did in Daphne’s electric shock scene: I feel a powerful emotional response when Francie teeters high on the brink of disaster, singing her last song as the light fades till the swinging mics look like fireflies.
And I chuckle as Chicks frankly informs us, “I danced and held the mic for others, but you didn’t hear my voice”. True enough, there is certainly more of the story to be told – I had been hoping to hear more from the adult Chicks, as in Frame’s depiction she’s the funniest snob you will ever come across, playing a record of Beethoven’s Fifth to her posh guests, deciding on coffee cake rather than chocolate cake ‘because it’s more intellectual’. I guess sacrifices must be made with such a wealth of material.
Although the women are so strong, the two men, Arlo Gibson and Ross McCormack as Dad and Toby, have one of the most moving scenes, a sensitive evocation through dance of their pitiable relationship: a tentative hand touching a face, a body briefly taking the other’s weight, but the movement slips away, the contact is continually lost in their failure to communicate. Near me, sitting with his more bookish wife, a burly farmer actually wipes away a surreptitious tear.
No doubt that it is an incredibly innovative and stimulating piece of theatre. But does it convey the essence of Janet Frame’s novel? It may be that the focus on Janet’s dysfunctional family and horrific psychiatric experiences have left more to explore in the writing itself, a style no one had used before, though reminiscent of Dylan Thomas and Virginia Woolf, her delirious explosions of words irradiating the text in Daphne’s Songs from the Dead Room.
Then just as I ponder this, we are treated to a most beautiful rendition of the very first of her songs, the one I think of as ‘the song of the dunny roses’. The impact of this imaginative stage interpretation, like that of the book, will be highly individualistic, but at the conclusion, many are on their feet to applaud, rapturous.
The ladies from Twizel share a dainty pot of tea before the drive home. What did they make of it? Well worth the trip, they assure me. The eldest, white haired and elegant in black velvet and pearls, found it a little confusing, and is politely disappointed there was not more emphasis on Frame’s wonderful writing, but the youngest, Aimee, is glowing, uplifted: “I loved it!” I am encouraged to think Red Leap will speak to her age group, the generation said to be in the grip of a mental health emergency, yet struggling to bring imaginative solutions to a world that even when faced with crisis still thinks and acts conventionally.
Janet Frame is our acclaimed taonga, a national treasure, and there are many who would not hesitate to claim the same for Red Leap. This exciting unsettling production that melds the two would be an inspirational representation of New Zealand overseas. The lovely quote from Frame chosen for the programme exemplifies Red Leap’s own particular glory: “Imagination, a glittering noble word, creating its own inner light”. Time to share that light with the world!
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