The Harbinger

Harbinger_reviewNineteenth century English historian and novelist James Anthony Froude wrote “Fear is the parent of cruelty”. It is an emotion resistant to reason, one able to turn those whom we wish to protect into prisoners. In The Harbinger, Critical Stages and Dead Puppet Society bring us a tale of confinement, unexpected connection and penance told largely through puppetry that will appeal to all ages.

The novelty of this production is on display immediately. We begin with a large, intimidating puppet — an old man in a wheelchair — sitting alone in a dark bookshop with a large apple tree. He wakes, tearing pages from books, folding them into insect shapes as the wind howls threateningly outside.

A girl (Kathleen Iron) in tattered clothes sneaks past the hefty chain on his door, seeking shelter. The old man is tired, and as the spirited but silent girl won’t leave, he allows her to stay only if she folds insects from “every page in every book”. Recognizing the value of her labour to the man, in exchange for work the girl extracts answers; who is that woman on the painting nailed to the apple tree?

The dynamic between the wilful girl and the curmudgeonly old man gives us a tantalizingly slow revelation of history through the puppetry accompanying the man’s stories and the girl’s discoveries in the bookshop. It is a credit to the writing and directing team of David Morton and Matthew Ryan that the mystery of the piece is preserved and that every moment of the performance serves a purpose. There’s even some droll humour as the writers undermine connotations of fairy tale iconography.

Aside from being an engaging story, there’s plenty to marvel at in other aspects of the production. Lead puppeteer/performer and voice of the old man Barb Lowing, with the team of Emily Burton, Anna Straker and Giema Contini, seem imbued with the illusion of the tale. In their black habit-like garb and white faces, initially they seem quite obvious on stage, only to become part of the magic as they dissolve into the background, guiding the old man’s wheelchair, or animating the characters from his stories.

The scattered properties of the set with Anna Straker’s scenic art and illustration in the bookshop morph efficiently into minimal yet effective backdrops for a story and back again, and pages of books form frames for shadow puppetry.

Noni Harrison’s costume design evokes the grim life of an urchin and hints at the old man’s fustiness in his dim shop. Lighting (Whitney Eglington) and sound design (Tone Black Productions) assist in setting mood and building tension. I was delighted with the fine detail, such as when the covers of a stripped book are burned for heat, and the brazier crackles.

The Harbinger was an immensely satisfying visit to a fully-realized world where the blending of myth and reality herald the arrival of an extremely talented ensemble. Melbourne audiences were unfortunate that their touring schedule saw them here only for September 25 and 26, as they proceed on a national tour of this incredible work.

The Harbinger
Darebin Arts and Entertainment Centre, Cnr Bell St and St Georges Rd, Preston
Performance: Friday 26 September 2014
Season: 25 – 26 September 2014

For more information and touring dates, click here!

Image: courtesy of the Dead Puppet Society

Review: Jason Whyte