Opera Australia and Barking Gecko Theatre Company bring a wondrous new, fusion opera to this year’s Melbourne Festival. Based on the iconic illustrated children’s book by John Marsden and Shaun Tan an eclectic audience are treated to a visual spectacle that beautifully emulates Tan’s detailed style and witness a very close to home, heart wrenching analogous exposé of colonization. As a children’s book, The Rabbits cleverly and gently introduces children to the concept of colonization and Australian history. Marsden’s simple language broaches this issue with respect and reveals a history of pain and suffering that most children wouldn’t be able to conceptualize through a realistic portrayal. In a somewhat similar way, Opera Australia with the compositions of Kate Miller-Heidke have blended musical theatre, children’s theatre and operatic form to allow children who often can’t sit through a three hour opera to be introduced to, and appreciate such a beloved and traditional form of expression.
The overall design is sublime, from set, to lighting, to costumes; it’s hard to envisage it in any other way. With Gabriela Tylesova designing both set and costumes this production feels very rounded and polished. The marsupials’ body suits and headpieces allow the actors to move in an animal like way, whilst maintaining very human features. It was an effective establishment of the underlying metaphor as you are never really able to disassociate the horrible trauma the marsupials had to endure from the historical background, which brings about and overarching sense of shame. At times some rabbits looked uncomfortable moving and reaching around their huge mouths, however this was hardly an issue as it contrasted the free movement of the marsupials. Perhaps I’m reading too much into it, but I like to think the rigidity and cumbersomeness of their costumes juxtaposed the marsupials free movement around the space, and symbolized the indigenous understanding of the land and a freedom that comes from a relationship with the earth. Trent Suidgeest’s lighting design works in harmony with Tylesova’s vision. Cleverly lighting faces from within the mouths of the rabbits demonstrates the attention to detail that has gone into this production. A beautiful opening lighting state brings life to the rippling fabric and intrigues the viewer immediately. The sound design and band brought together the visual elements with rich expressive orchestrations. You can tell that a lot of love, energy and hard work has been spent on refining this piece to its current form.
Now on to Kate Miller-Heidke. Well, what can I say? A voice that is out of this world, and a diverse musical prowess that is almost sickening. On stage as the Bird she is the anchor, narrator type figure who joins each of the episodic portrayals of Tans illustrations. Her vocal performance is surreal. With an amazing range and control she often sets the mood of the upcoming scene with bird like calls. She is truly a vocal contortionist that has, thankfully for us, put her talents to good use. Her compositions are intricate and fascinating to listen to, with gorgeous harmonies within the marsupials a particular highlight. It is important to remember however that this show is targeted at children as well as opera enthusiasts. Unfortunately each song didn’t really distinctly end. Whilst that is the operatic form, children need a defined structure to know how to respond. At the end of each song the young girls sitting next to me would look around the audience to gauge how to react. It is difficult to keep children engaged when they aren’t give breaks. Finishing a song strongly and allowing an applause break lets the younger audience members know that the scene is over and something new and exciting is about to happen, and let’s them shuffle around and get their jitters out. At the higher climactic moments there also didn’t feel to be a major mood change within the music which resulted in underwhelming dramatic high points. A stronger contrast for these moments again guides the younger audience to how they should be interpreting what is going on before them, preventing them from getting lost within the piece.
Hollie Andrew, Jessica Hitchcock, Lisa Maza, Marcus Corowa and David Leha work together outstandingly as the marsupials. A strong familial bond exudes from them as they interact within the space. Their honesty and raw emotion brings a tear to my eye even as I write this. Their performances epitomize storytelling at its finest.
Kanen Breen, Nicholas Jones, Christopher Hillier, Simon Meadows and Robert Mitchell are the herd of rabbits who provide comic relief with a sinister intention. Breen’s falsetto and overtly melodramatic facial expressions had the children near me in stitches, and lyrics such at “carrots, rabbits, lettuce” really tickled their fancy. In saying this I felt the rabbits’ comedic moments were rather unpredictable. At times contrived lyrics trying too hard to be funny didn’t translate, and some moments became too laborious and repetitive, however the standard of performance, commitment to the role, along with the abstract costumes were in general enough to get a laugh and lift the mellow mood.
The Rabbits is a perfect piece for the Melbourne Festival. It brings together a variety of people, from 10 year olds who have never been to the opera, to teenagers, to seasoned regulars. Opera Australia has taken this opportunity to push the boundaries of the standard form. Aimed at a generation of children who have grown up with iPads and overstimulation it is fantastic to see an openness to change within such strong tradition. If we are to engage a younger generation in such a culture, we have to accept that they crave stimulation through many mediums, and Opera Australia is attempting to open their eyes to the world of theatre as a rich and fulfilling experience.
The Rabbits is a poignant, masterfully crafted theatrical experience. Bringing a truly important story to the stage in such a creative and meaningful manner. This story is vital in our history. It is an overwhelmingly an important piece that will hopefully continue to educate our children for many years to come. This is a show that will make you cry, laugh, question and regret. As a white Australian male there is no way I can ever comprehend what living through colonisation was like. The Rabbits brings me closer to that and is a painful yet important awakening. I am the descendent of a rabbit, and I am sorry. If the season weren’t sold out I would be urging you to get a ticket. So let us just hope that we haven’t seen the last of The Rabbits.