Alchemical love: Griffin, STCSA & Sydney Festival’s Masquerade

If you’ve read the little print at the back of a program for a Griffin Theatre Company production over the past five years, you might have noticed a play called Masquerade as being in development. In 2015, co-produced Griffin and the State Theatre Company of South Australia as part of the Sydney Festival, Kate Mulvany’s Masquerade completes its journey to the stage in a production bursting with life, colour, music and dance. But for all its joyous raucous rambunctiousness, there is a bittersweet and touching story which makes this story, this production, more raw and affecting than it might otherwise have been as a relatively ‘straight’ adaptation.

Adapted from Kit Williams’ 1979 book Masquerade – an illustrated treasure hunt filled with riddles and sumptuous illustrations – Mulvany’s play for “9 to 90-year-olds” is part adventure-story, part bildungsroman, part riddle, part musical, and – at the insistence of Williams himself – includes Mulvany’s personal connection to the story as well. On one level, it’s the story of the Moon as she falls in love with the Sun, and how she sends her messenger, Jack Hare, to deliver a message to her paramour. On another level, it’s the story of hospital-bound 10-year-old Joe and his mum as she tells him the story of Jack, the moon, and the sun. These two storylines, like the ribbons on a maypole, intertwine and unravel, deepening and complementing each other until they join together in the second half to create a sequel of sorts to Williams’ book, inspired by the worldwide treasure hunt it ignited in the early 1980s.
Directed by Lee Lewis & Sam Strong – respectively the current and former artistic directors of Griffin, and both champions of Mulvany’s adaptation – the production is a visual and aural cornucopia, full of colour, music, sound, and light, but there’s a strange kind of alchemy at work here, too. While Lewis and Strong’s direction is strong, making sure each moment is imbued with its own kind of magic, something feels lost or perhaps changed in translation onto the Drama Theatre stage at the Opera House. As Joe’s mum tells him the story of Williams’ Masquerade and it in turn unfolds in front of us, an unending procession of characters appear and disappear with the frequency of a turned page and we are brought inside the story, we become a part of it, but it is necessarily an intensely personal book, full of riddles, clues and intricate details, which cannot be fully recreated or embodied on a stage, at least not physically; clues which, although they have one correct answer, will have a different and equally correct answer to whoever reads it, whoever enters its world. Part of Masquerade’s appeal as a book is its emotional connection, its imaginative power – its variability – and this will be different person to person, reader to audience member, something that this production – for all its colour, whimsy, life, and theatrical magic – cannot quite produce.
The visual and imaginative connection to Mulvany’s Masquerade is aided by Anna Cordingley’s whimsical set and costumes. A whirlwind of colour, ingenuity and vivacity, they not only embody the theatricality of Williams’ illustrations but translates them into full-blooded and three-dimensional characters and situations. Physically framed within a storybook sequence of seemingly random letters, numbers and symbols, the action unfolds as if across the double-page spread of Williams’ book, which in a way it does. Within this frame though, some of the action on the topmost level of Cordingley’s rotating and malleable set – such as the Moon’s directions to Joe, and the scenes with Isaac Newton – are unfortunately obscured. Geoff Cobham’s lighting is as richly coloured and as storybook-like as Cordingley’s set, but the orbiting struts supporting the lighting for the moon and sun intrude awkwardly upon the space. The music, provided live by Mikelangelo and the Black Sea Gentlemen, is a gorgeous fusion of Baltic cabaret, klezmer, Kurt Weill-esque melodies, haunting violin lines, and accordion riffs, and suits this alchemical story marvellously well.
As Jack Hare, Nathan O’Keefe is as light-footed and mercurial a Jack as you could imagine, and his physicality is superb. A natural clown, O’Keefe’s height and ability to play the humour sincerely and without milking it of its worth works to the advantage of the production and he is a delight to watch in his velvet knickerbockers, large ears, braces and oversized feet. As Joe, Jack Andrew (and Louis Fontaine, on alternating nights) is almost pitch-perfect as the boy who dreams of walking outside; his sincerity and honesty right to the end is disarming and incredibly moving. Helen Dallimore as Tessa, Joe’s mother, while a little quiet at times, has a fragile strength about her and we never see her as anything other than compassionate and loving, no matter what Penny Pockets might have her or us believe. Kate Cheel’s Moon is a mercurial vision in silver pleats with a white shock of disco-era hair; her Tara Treetops – in wide-brimmed hat, brightly coloured layered hooped dress and boots – is a Mary Poppins-esque vision of precision, order and magic, complete with animatronic crow. Zindzi Okenyo as everything from a flatulent nurse to Penny Pockets (a seller of goods and bads), Fat Pig, the personification of Dawn, and a fish is unrecognizable in each incarnation, and plays with gusto and energy throughout. As the Sun, Mikelangelo (of the Black Sea Gentlemen) is gruff and somewhat distant, looking like a rockabilly minstrel in his gold suit, guitar, and slicked-back hair; his realization of why people shield their eyes from him is both moving and almost child-like in its logic. Pip Branson – one of the Black Sea Gentlemen and, with Mikelangelo, the production’s composer and musical director – plays a lispy be-ruffled Isaac Newton (complete with obligatory apple), and as a musician supplies the haunting violin melodies which keep the production moving, perfectly suited to that character of The Man Who Plays The Music That Makes The World Go Round (or Time, as you might otherwise know him). The remaining Black Sea Gentlemen, when not accompanying the action as musicians, bring warmth and wit to a (new) scene suggested by Kit Williams himself, as an incomplete quartet of barbers. Under Lewis and Strong’s direction, no actor or character feels as though they are out of place, and no performance is too big or not pitched right, and each feels as though they are part of the world of Masquerade, as though they are as they have always been.
Mulvany’s script is full of life, full of wit and love and inventiveness, and it is crammed with nothing short of the utmost admiration, love and respect for Williams’ book. There is something of Neil Gaiman’s wordplay, charisma, and delight in puns in Mulvany’s writing too, and it is a treat to see it unfold all together (even if some of the cod-swearing seems a touch out of place). But in adapting the book and its subsequent treasure hunt into a piece of theatre, something of the elusive emotional magic is taken away from the tale. This is, in a way, where Mulvany’s own journey comes in and how it comes to bear upon the script’s jigsaw-like structure: by adding the story of a sick boy in hospital reading the book with his mum, we as an audience are given a way into the story which mirrors Mulvany’s own experience, and charges Jack Hare’s journey with a very real emotional weight that the story might not otherwise have. And, for the most part, it works. It is only in the final scene of the play, as the treasure hunt and the moon and sun’s stories collide in a cosmic ballet of love, forgiveness and reunion, that the play becomes unstuck – there is perhaps too much resonance in the final beat that remains only hinted at, unspoken, left to the audience’s imagination, that puts a harrowing spin on the otherwise beautiful story. But, just as The Doctor told us in Provence, “every life is a pile of good things and bad things. The good things don’t always soften the bad things, but vice versa, the bad things don’t always spoil the good things and make them unimportant,” and so it is with this Masquerade.

I really wanted to love Masquerade. The story – in Williams’ book, as a treasure hunt, the ‘scandal’ of its solution, in Mulvany’s own personal journey with the book, in the play’s journey to the stage, in its current theatrical incarnation – is beguiling, beautiful, whimsical, thrilling, and heartwrenching in equal measure, and it is a treat from beginning to end. But part of me cannot love this production, and I still don’t know exactly why, even now, days later. Like Williams’ book, it works on many different levels at once, some of which are explicit while others are oblique, but the sum of its parts didn’t quite work its alchemical power on me as much as I would have liked. Perhaps, as Tessa tells Joe, there is a little bit of room left for some magic to yet be worked, as it begins its journey around the country on a national festival tour.

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