Thursday, 26 September 2013

Storybook Staging

The Book of Everything adapted by Richard Tulloch from the novel by Guus Kuijer
Directed by Ed Wightman
Canberra Repertory, Theatre 3
13-28 September, 2013

As I have had a fair bit to do with this play and am friends with a number of the cast and crew, it wouldn’t be unbiased of me to review it. However, I loved it and cannot let it pass without a comment or two, so I shall focus on the set. Designed by Andrew Kay, it does exactly what a theatre set should: it enhances the play while according perfectly with the director’s vision.

What matters to you when you are nine (nearly ten), as is Thomas Klopper, the young hero of the play? Mainly your focus is on yourself, your family, and your neighbours. School and education are other factors, balanced by a heavy focus on religion, which dominates the family’s life due to the (literally) Bible-thumping Papa. Like childhood itself, the play follows a roller-coaster of emotion where being happy seems an incredible achievement and ‘a damned good idea’.

Like a stunningly-crafted pop-up book, the stage is ornamented by a row of quirky townhouses, tall and narrow and ranging in heights with pointed, neck and bell gables. The setting is Amsterdam, but it is a child’s Amsterdam of canals and bicycles, not the strip clubs and cannabis coffee shops favoured by backpackers and stag parties.

And as with those houses in Amsterdam, the frontispiece is merely a facade. The fronts peel back like the flaps of a dollhouse to reveal a kitchen, a sitting room, a bedroom and a church, which is ‘not even a real church. We go to someone’s house in Amsterdam West’. In another stroke of genius, the interior walls are blackboards, on which chalk pictures have been drawn to illustrate our location – a clock; a row of coat hooks; stairs; a window; a religious icon; a fish-tank.

The two-dimensionality of the flats is enlivened when props or pieces of furniture are required. A small cupboard opens to disgorge a table and chairs or a relaxing armchair. Secret nooks stash a cup of sugar or a selection of books – each built specifically to accommodate the play’s mechanics and cunningly hidden until the necessary moment. Lighting enhances and embraces this set effectively guiding the viewer’s attention to the desired spot and highlighting critical moments, such as making the fish tank change colour in a stylised horror scene.

All this is clever enough, but the flats are actually double hinged, so they can be opened either way, thus doubling the interior decor – like a sort of Dutch tardis effect. Andrew explains it as a Jacob’s ladder design. When the folk toy, made from wooden blocks and held together with string, is held at one end, the blocks appear to tumble down the string. This is a visual illusion, however, caused by each consecutive block flipping over.

Because of the toy’s biblical name (Jacob dreams about a ladder to Heaven in the book of Genesis), Puritan children were allowed to play with it on Sundays. Thomas’ father will not let his family even take the tram on Sundays as ‘Apparently, the two worst things in the world are being a traitor in the War, and riding in a tram on Sunday.’

This reminds us that the play is set in 1951. The War has not long been over and it has left scars. Mrs Van Amersfoort, whom the children taunt for being a witch because she is a little eccentric, mutters to herself as she walks, and ‘always wears black dresses’, lost her husband during the Nazi occupation. She strips away all childhood naivety as she informs her young neighbour Thomas, ‘The Nazis caught him. They put him against that wall out there, and they shot him dead.’

The horrific baldness of this statement is breathtaking, and you almost expect to see the blood running down the winding cobbled street painted across the front of the stage. The implication is that these walls barely screen rather than utterly conceal. It was a bookcase in front of a wall in Amsterdam that hid arguably the most famous diarist, Anne Frank and her family, for more than two years. Ultimately, resistance is not futile.

Mrs Van Amersfoort is also the one to mention the hidden monster that pops up in the Good Book. Abuse and hypocrisy hide behind the closed doors of the Klopper household, but she pries them open, aware that these secrets must be exposed to the air rather than left to fester inside – as she tells Thomas, ‘We’re neighbours aren’t we? These walls are thin.’

The writing is on the wall. Chalk dust on a blackboard leaves a trace that can never really be rubbed away. ‘That slap on his mother’s soft cheek... all the slaps his mother had ever received, a rain of slaps...’ creates an imprint that may physically fade but will never emotionally vanish. Evil in all forms does not necessarily have to be punished, but it must be confronted.

Although it is a very personal story, it also has a much grander scope and demands to be told. As we should be aware from the opening line, this is a global tale. ‘The Book of Everything by Thomas Klopper, aged nine... nearly ten. Address: Breughelstreet 3, Amsterdam, Holland, Europe, Northern Hemisphere, Earth, Solar System, Galaxy, Universe, Space.”

Just as the wooden houses tell a story, so does the diary Thomas keeps, in which ‘I write everything down so that later I’ll know exactly what happened’. The pages of this ambitiously-named titular Book of Everything contain their secrets, and opening them up is tantamount to opening Pandora’s box, so beautifully echoed by the set design. To paraphrase a line from the play; I’m not writing this (just) because I would like Andrew to design the set for any play I ever direct. I am writing this because it is true.

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