You and Me and the Space Between is a stunning example of theatre billed for children that somehow manages to be more politically engaged than most main stage shows billed for adults.
Beginning on a stripped back paper set, the world of the Proud Circle and the Long Cliffs is brought to life through projected live drawings and puppetry. Characters and worlds are literally sketched out and brought to the stage by cartoonist Oslo Davis, who sits beside the stage, working deftly at the tablet in front of him. The visual trickery in Davis’ cartoons and the occasional physical pop-up onstage, (expertly manipulated by puppeteer Felicity Horsley), are pleasurable surprises that keep the text-heavy production engaging and brisk. With such a rich tapestry already being drawn out by the text and visuals, the soundscape—led by live musician Dean Stevenson, who also gorgeously voices some of the characters—occasionally threatens to overwhelm the production.
Finegan Kruckemeyer’s script is a careful allegory for refugees fleeing environmental catastrophe, effortlessly taking on difficult questions about discrimination and assimilation by weaving a story about two cultures colliding. Charmingly narrated by Katherine Tonkin, we look through the eyes of precocious 12-year old Eve as she and her people navigate the trauma of sea levels rising and arriving at a new world.
Seeking refuge, the island people of the Proud Circle row and row and row their entire island together, eventually arriving at the Long Cliffs. The people of the Long Cliffs speak a different language, eat different food, and make different music, but easily recognise in a shared humanity.
The small island docks at this humongous stable landmass and the people begin to move tentatively but peacefully in and out of each other’s culture. The music of the Proud Circle is palatable to the people of the Long Cliffs, the bread less so. Violence occurs. The island breaks away in a storm and in a gut-wrenching sequence, the Proud Circle’s SOS is sketched onto a black background: “WE ARE PEOPLE WORTH SAVING BECAUSE WE ARE PEOPLE DROWNING”.
There is no ambiguity to this point because there is no ambiguity to people dying. Humanity is unconditional. The point is frustratingly simple, and particularly disturbing in the week of a leaked UNHCR report telling us detention centre detainees suffer from “among the highest recorded [rates of depressive/anxiety disorders and/or post-traumatic stress disorders] of any population in the world”.
If children aged 5+ get it, what’s our excuse?
Left there, the show could be critiqued for being a clear but perhaps simplistic allegory about ‘letting people in’. But Kruckemeyer’s script is relentless and not easy, because the way we think about who ‘We’ are and who ‘They’ are is not easy, and You and Me and the Space Between is all about the space between.
The people of the Proud Circle, to stay safe from the storms and rising floods, move off their island and attempt to assimilate into the Long Cliffs. In one of the production’s most poignant and incisive scenes, we spend a moment with the people who are trying to think and speak another language while longing to think and speak their own language. They are ‘ghosts’ who have lost their ‘heart’ by coming untethered from a lifelong home. Yet even while they struggle to fit in, they continue being attacked for not taking a more active role in integrating and assimilating.
Eve, in a devastatingly straightforward stroke of directing, steps out and faces away from the audience to speak to the people of the Long Cliffs in an inversion of an earlier scene. The audience, immediately positioned within the ranks of those being asked to cast their culture aside, are challenged to intuitively make sense of what it is to be simultaneously grateful and utterly bereft.
You and Me doesn’t mistake assimilation for progress. Instead, it points towards our capacity to make room for difference, to find a way of preventing the expectations about assimilation from damaging and devastating the incoming community.
Again, if the politics and complexities of immigrant identity can be articulated in a way that children aged 5+ get it, what’s our excuse?
Amidst hard-hitting politics presented in all their complexity within an allegory that doesn’t pull any punches, Sam Routledge’s production is also astonishingly, casually queer-friendly. The language used is inclusive – our narrator Eve ends up with Mosha, who is identified only as ‘they’; we have wives and husbands, but also spouses. The gesture is simple but immeasurably important in a time where we can no longer deny queerness and the impacts of positive representation.
You and Me and the Space Between takes on adult politics through the eyes of a child, and in an allegorical world where cultures are different but complementary, battles out what adults keep trying to convince themselves are difficult political decisions. The parallels are easily drawn between Australia’s and its relationship to its Pacific neighbours, as well as adding another dimension to the complexities of Anglo-Australia’s relationship to indigenous land.
If children aged 5+ get it, what’s our excuse?