Since the death of John Hurt, I’ve been thinking a lot about The Storyteller – a 90s children’s series in which Hurt plays the titular character (and sports a very large prosthetic nose). A place where myths and legends took flight through the narration of an old man by a fireside, this Jim Henson production was utterly unlike the rest of the Angela Anaconda’s and Hey Arnold!’s which made up an after-school TV viewer’s fare. I adored it. It was the only mp4 I remembered to put on my iPod before I went traveling overseas, and I would watch it often when feeling lost and alone. Mostly on trains.
West of the Moon has a similar fascination with the old stories; of innocence amid darkness, earnest protagonists, fantastic quests and improbable magic. Drawing from Scandinavian folk tale, it weaves a simple tale of courage, treachery and romance.
In a clever use of shadow puppetry, all characters but one appear at first to us as silhouetted profiles behind a series of screens, which wash with shifting landscapes and interior scenes. Only Boots – the simple village girl – is alive with colour and dimension.
Though unremarkable to her family and herself, a passing wizard recognises in Boots all the qualities of a champion. He bestows upon her a pair of red boots, and a quest – which turns up at her doorstep one day in the shape of a polar bear. The bear asks that she travel “east of the stars, west of the moon” to rid his kingdom of the evil troll queen: she accepts. Her parents also concede, requiring no than a sack of gold to convince them.
The plot moves along dreamily, through jungles, deserts and courtyards; a pacing which at times works against the dramatic action expected of an adventure tale. The same could be said for the extended shadowplay – it is only when a second human steps out from behind a screen that a working dynamism kicks off.
There are plenty of beautiful images to enjoy though (particularly the dragon puppets that embody the sister winds of east and west), and the plucky, whimsical original synth pop theme is a genuine delight. The older viewers in the audience are treated to a few gratifying ‘over the head’ comic winks – mainly contained in the achingly shy exchanges between Boots and Bjorn, the handsome stable boy with a secret.
At the tale’s moral heart is the idea that we are more than who we think we are, and others are always more than we think they are too. We are never just one person, and there are unknown sides to us that will surprise – whether it’s in wondrous astonishment, or nasty shock. To love someone, we also learn, means to accept every part of them. Selective love is not worthy of the name.
Despite a few dialogue stumbles, the characters are all adeptly portrayed. Though only ever a silhouette, the wizard is exceptionally enjoyable, played with animated sparkle and eccentric muddle-headedness by the same actor behind the bear king.
Though perhaps taking itself too seriously for a play catered predominantly towards fidget-prone kids, West of the Moon is nonetheless a sweet-hearted production, which uses light and shadow to tell a tale of good and evil. Moreover – with new research suggesting that girls begin to doubt their intelligence at age six – the play’s message of female empowerment is to be cherished.
West of the Moon
The Blue Room Theatre, 53 James Street, Perth
Performance: Thursday 2 February 2017 – 6.30pm
Season continues to Saturday 4 February 2017
Information and Bookings: www.fringeworld.com.au
Image: West of the Moon – courtesy of Tanya Voltchanskaya
Review: Kate Prendergast