|Catherine Hagarty and Chrissie Shaw|
Rolling Home by Greg Lissaman. Music and songs by John Shortis. Presented by Canberra Theatre Centre in the Courtyard Studio September 17-22, 2012.
Reviewed by Frank McKone
Greg Lissaman, himself once-upon-a-time an artistic director of The Jigsaw Company – Canberra’s regular theatre-in-education team – has written, produced and directed this independent production for 7-10 year olds with support from the Canberra Theatre Centre, ArtsACT and Riverside Theatres, Parramatta (Sydney). He has pulled together an experienced team in composer John Shortis, lighting designer Matt Cox, sound designer Kimmo Vennonen, costume designers Hilary Talbot and Imogen Keen, and puppetry director Catherine Roach, with actors Catherine Hagarty and Chrissie Shaw.
The result is high quality material and performance which held a mixed audience from Kindergarten to Year 5 this morning, including an enthusiastic 20 minute Q&A session conducted by the actors when the story was finally finished.
“Finally finished” is not a criticism of the script, but its main theme. You could call Rolling Home Brechtian theatre for littlies. The two main characters are Figaro (Shaw) and Georgio (Hagarty) who are fairytale story tellers, in the story they tell to us in the audience, singing songs as they go along. They slip easily between their characters as wandering story tellers, the characters they become in the stories they tell, and as out-of-role actors in teacher mode, asking questions of the children about the characters they played, as well as in actor mode explaining about the business of theatre.
Georgio is young and rather naive, seeking to settle down in his own home – his story cannot finish until the story of the magic crystal belonging to the Queen of the Dark Forest is concluded. Figaro is older, craftier, and prefers to keep moving on, even after their caravan has rolled away downhill and smashed to pieces. In the end, they find their “home” in their friendship, built up through all the experiences they have had together in returning the crystal to its rightful owner. Only then does Figaro reveal to Georgio that the King (who had stolen the Queen’s crystal, and from whom Georgio had taken it) had actually paid 12 gold pieces for their storytelling, not the 3 he had at first said the King had paid.
So the story finally finishes when true friendship means honesty – Georgio can build a home, Figaro can travel on, but both are welcome in each other’s life.
Would this complexity of levels of understanding come through to the children watching?
In the session I saw, my half of the audience were mainly well below the age of 7, while the half I could watch in the opposite seats were mainly 8 plus. On my side the children responded to everything as if they understood (after the little boy in front of me had wondered after the first song and we all clapped “Is that the end?"), but when it came to Q&A, the littlies had questions which they couldn’t remember when asked to speak. The actors handled these potentially embarrassing situations with positive encouragement but without improper pressure. Good teaching approach, in other words.
On the other side, I could see faces light up during the performance as children picked up what was happening in the relationship between Georgio and Figaro, and there were many very thoughtful and insightful questions in the Q&A. Good theatre-in-education at work, in other words.
I don’t need many more words then to say that this is an interesting and well worthwhile theatre and educational experience, especially for the intended age group but even for much younger children.
But then I had other thoughts about the concept. Essentially the script, songs and music draw upon a range of storytelling traditions which come down to us from Europe, including the key “quest for the holy grail” element in the magic crystal story and the “royalty / commoner” characters. In the Australian context this material is in the background of most people, but is quite outside the traditions of Indigenous Australians.
Though there is great value in Rolling Home, for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders it is a confirmation of the power of invasive culture, with no counterbalance. So I proposed to Greg Lissaman that he might take up the search for a way to make a play for young children which would draw on maintaining country and community from the ancient Australian tradition.
I suppose this is just another quest, but in our conversation we wondered how David and Stephen Page, and Frances Rings, might like to take Bangarra into work for young children, now that Terrain has shown how their work can ring true across our cultural differences – as Lissaman’s Georgio and Figaro found in friendship and honesty.