28 October, Spiegeltent, HBAF18 By Anna Soutar
This work, presented at the tail end of a Festival of the Arts, is a fitting coda. What better audience, than the audience of Festivals-To-Come? What better drama where the audience of yesterday (and the day-before-yesterday) take their smalls, quite literally, by the hand and share the story, songs and puzzles from our own folder of wonders.
Sunday morning in the closing hours of the Harcourt’s Hawke’s Bay Arts Festival 2018 is a most satisfactory choice for grandparents and nga mokopuna to wander along to the tent on the Green to soak up the mood, music and laughs at the same time as absorbing a little of the lessons kuia are duty-bound to expose their descendants to.
Some things do not sit right with this grandmother/reviewer: a dog in the bush? Worse, a yappy dog in the bush?! And at first, I resist the device of the control coming out of the back of the child-puppet’s head. Ouch that’s got to hurt! But the action of the story carries me away and I forget to wince in sympathy.
A magical thing about the Spiegeltent, this wondrous performance space, is how it can be altered and rearranged to match the need. When we arrive the front of the stage is floating on a sea of coloured spots, like lily pads in a pond. Within moments, the children – several dozens of them – have plonked themselves down like so many coloured frogs, all waiting for action. Ring Mistress Ali appears, showing amazing energy with no hint of the nearly end state of the Festival, and sets the tone to the children: “Remember to look after your adults, they get a bit scared sometimes,” she warns.
Then a mind-jump – small children are so good at this – and we are near the bush where Grandad is showing his little moko how to have fun in the trees. He and the audience learn a song about the bush and, somehow, the little dog Dusty goes off on his own and gets lost. Oh no! With a click here and swish there, we are in the real deep bush.
This show has been contrived with a line of flats over which are draped swathes of patchwork reminiscent of Nana’s sewing box. Another flick from a fantail’s wing – cleverly enacting through ingenious hand-puppetry – and its material is turned over with tree patterns and greenery swirls to become the mysterious faraway bush. Left alone with their quilts and upturned boxes, children make spaces like this, just as believable to them. A shy face peers out between the drapery, sees no threat and carefully emerges. She is a curious creature with a lacey blue bonnet and the most enormous nose, rather beak-like. She wears a tidy apron and carries a capacious kit and over her shoulders lies a soft grey shawl. She is a mixture of picture book Mother and a large grey and blue bird.
To cut a long story short we are sitting down with Old Mother Kokako – looking rather like the Hubbard Lady from our fairy tale books – as she settles down to enjoy a delicious Kokako Picnic!
Mother Kokako is a jumpy picnicker. No doubt her ‘nearly extinct’ status accounts for this. Or perhaps she thinks the children – who are very close – are looking hungrily at her lunch of grasshoppers and beetles. But she does not see the ENORMOUS snail who comes out to slither down her feathers. The children soon warn her “Look behind you!” reflecting pantomime themes many of these children may not yet have met in their theatre-going experience. More hand-puppets appear – including a chubby and delightful kiwi – so simply but effectively bringing to life an ensemble of foresty friends.
Almost too soon we sing the song again, the lights come on and the lily pond is reconfigured into a sea of cushions. Roger and Bridget Sanders (Birdlife Productions), two people we sort of recognise from the play sit down on the edge of the stage and some of the braver children go up and talk, have selfies taken, help the ladies gathering the cushions.
Children find the right hand to hold and everyone goes off for lunch on a very special Sunday at the end of the Festival.