Shaun Tan’s book The Red Tree has captivated young readers across the globe. It won the Patricia Wrightson Prize at the 2002 NSW Premier’s Literary Awards and, following its French translation, the le Prix Octogones 2003 prize, awarded by the Centre International d’Etudes en Literature de Jeunesse.
The burgeoning National Theatre of Parramatta is now presenting a brand new musical theatre work based on Tan’s book at Parramatta’s Riverside Theatres. In order to do so, the company has enlisted the talents of multi-award-winning playwright Hilary Bell, award-winning songwriter and composer Greta Gertler Gold, production designer James Browne and director Neil Gooding.
Tan’s book tells the story of a young girl, living inside her bedroom, and depicts the manner in which she conquers her fears and anxieties, eventually embracing hope and seizing control of the world that surrounds her.
Bell provides Theatre People a greater insight into Tan’s celebrated book.
“There’s no story per se; there’s a young girl who is the character, but we never find out her name. She never actually says anything and we don’t know anything about her circumstances. We just see her in these various bizarre landscapes,” Bell explains.
“There’s not really a narrative; [the book] invites you to come up with your own ideas about what it’s all about.”
She discusses the process of turning the book, which features minimal text, into a piece of theatre.
“I had to take some liberties, including just the stuff of theatre, which is character, conflict, narrative and some sense of forward movement,” she says.
“When you take a very beloved book like this, you have to keep in mind that a lot of people are only going to be coming because they love the book, so you can’t betray them and you can’t go off on your own flight of fancy too much. You have to be faithful to what it is.”
Bell continues: “I think, with any adaptation, it’s really about trying to understand what the spirit of the original is, and then recreating it in its new form. So, I’ve given [the character] a name, I’ve given her a fleshed out character, and then created a very minimal, simple narrative that … gives you a sense of having moved through somewhere and having had some sort of catharsis, I suppose, by the end.”
Bell pinpoints what it is about The Red Tree that makes it strong source material for a theatrical work.
“It goes somewhere pretty unusual for a children’s book; it goes into some dark territory and it acknowledges that young children do experience very overwhelming negative emotions like fear, anxiety, loneliness, humiliation, [and] alienation,” she says. “I think the fact that it tackles that in a very poetic and beautiful way as a book is something that speaks to a lot of people all over the world.”
On The Red Tree, Bell has collaborated with Gertler Gold, with whom she’s had a two decade-long friendship. Originally from Sydney and now based in New York, Gertler Gold is a composer, lyricist, performer and producer, whose many credits include penning ARIA Award-winning hit songs for The Whitlams.
“In the last few years, she has been moving more and more into musical theatre in the States,” Bell says.
“It’s been really interesting working with her because she has a natural dramaturgical way of thinking about music. There are some composers who just write a great tune, but there are others who understand what it is to develop an idea to move a character forward.”
And is there a message the creative team hopes audiences will take away from their experience of The Red Tree?
“I think, like the book, what we would like the audience to know is that even when things look impossible, there’s always a glimmer of hope there. Ultimately, what you need more than anything is resilience, and if you have that, you can get through to the next stepping stone, and that’s where you might find that red leaf.”
THE RED TREE – SEASON DETAILS
DATES & TIMES
Monday 23 to Friday 27 October – 10am (sold out)
Wednesday 25 October – 1pm
Thursday 26 and Friday 27 October – 7pm
Saturday 28 October – 2pm and 7pm
Tickets: Adult $39, Concession $34
From the Box Office (02) 8839 3399 or www.riversideparramatta.com.au
Transaction fees: phone $4.60, web $3.60 and counter $2.60
Discounts available for Riverside Theatres’ Members.
Venue: Riverside Theatres – Corner of Church and Market Streets, Parramatta
Duration: Approx 75 minutes (no interval)