Saturday, 4 October 2014

Farm - Spare Parts Puppet Theatre (4 October 2014)

I am a city boy. Born and raised in Cottesloe I’ve never lived or worked outside a metropolitan area, even spending four years in the heart of Sydney a few hundred metres from Centrepoint Tower. The only experience I’ve had with farms is when I was much younger. 

Every year the family used to drive down to Uncle Frank’s farm on the outskirts of Albany. It’s a pretty awesome experience when you’re a kid, this great big playground with tractors, cows to milk and all the strange wonders foreign to city folk. After a few days pretending to be great pioneers we’d pack up and head back to Perth.

Of course, Uncle Frank, Aunty Dot and their family never had that luxury and I guess I never did know how hard life was for them. He was a small man, his weathered face a roadmap of those hardships but he was nothing less than kind and generous… and a pretty mean table tennis player after finally selling the property when it all became too much…

Thoughts that came flooding back when watching the wonderfully evocative Farm. Here three generations of a family work the land with all the attendant highs and lows as Mother Nature provides, deprives, batters, and tests the very fabric of their resourcefulness and strength. Threaded within this, a young girl (Chloe Flockart) eager to help meets resistance from her Father (St John Cowcher) as this world is very much seen to be a male domain. She talks to her Grandfather (voiced by Humphrey Bower) over the two-way and he dispenses wisdom and stories which is the framing device for the tale that slowly unfolds. The other performers are Rebecca Bradley as the Mother and Ruth Battle who represents the elements, nature, and the odd pesky kangaroo or cheeky sheep.

The story itself is very simple but effectively tells of the small moments of joy, the heartache, and the dependency of life on the land. Starting from the clearing of the trees and the construction of the farm, to the planting of crops (represented as gold coins), to the devastation of drought and bushfires with enemies ever lurking like the kangaroos and salinity. The grandfather (Foxtrot1) tells of how the girl’s Mother and Father (Foxtrot4) met which is celebrated in dance but then the inevitable pressures of constant battles with the elements take their toll. At one point the girl pleads in a kind of invocation as she wishes: that it would rain, that things would grow, that her father would listen, and that her mother was happy. It swirls around the stage as whispered voices join the heartfelt chant. The play ends on a note of optimism and with a lovely moment of closure for the girl as Flockart simply dons a hat, finally accepted as a vital contributor to the revitalisation of the farm.

There is so much inventiveness in the staging of this production. It is beautifully lit with the sun and occasionally the moon key players as they hover over the land. A projector is used to great effect to depict messages scrawled in the sand (for the worms to read) and there even is some hand silhouette work as the story of the fox and the trees is told, the fox ultimately revealed to be the father. Symbolism is used throughout – this is a visually stunning production. The only performer who speaks onstage is Flockart; the Bower voiceover used as the Grandfather and also to represent the essence of the trees whose presence, even as ash, infuses this place.

Bradley and Cowcher work silently and effectively and with Flockart make up an entirely credibly family unit. Battle is terrific in various guises and costumes, the most notable of which are a kangaroo that bounds across the stage; and as The Salt Man in an eerie costume as she encircles Cowcher’s despairing farmer in salt. The musical score works in well and all the visual, aural and performance elements are synchronised to stunning purpose, none more so than in the bushfire sequence.

I very much liked that there were lighter moments – the almost slapstick sequence as the family chase after Battle’s sheep; the joyous nature of the dance that initially starts with Cowcher and Bradley with Flockart and even Battle’s sheep joining in. Yes, there is also sadness here as destruction and death is a bleak reminder of the realities of farm life. But the affirmation at the end that these people will continue no matter what obstacles are put in their way is a powerful testament to the courage and perseverance of the Merredin community that inspired this story… and people like Uncle Frank who I think would have enjoyed this very much.

Directed by Philip Mitchell, Written by Ian Sinclair, and starring Ruth Battle, Rebecca Bradley, St John Cowcher and Chloe Flockart with Voiceover by Humphrey Bower, Farm has that element of magic that can make theatre so special. It is on at the Spare Parts Puppet Theatre in Fremantle until 11 October and is suitable for all ages. In fact it was wonderful to see so many children in attendance at today’s matinee.  

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