As the timeless characters of Fritha, a young English lass, and Philip Rhayader, a hunchbacked recluse with a penchant for painting birds, appear onstage, you are transfixed. There’s an intense beauty in this delicate, yet tough and bravely innovative stage production of Paul Gallico’s novella, The Snow Goose, which first saw the light of day as a short story in London’s Saturday Evening Post in 1940.
In the hands of arguably South Africa’s most innovative theatre practitioners, Jenine Collocott, Taryn Bennett and James Cairns, this gem of a production is honed and carried with the light yet pragmatic touch necessary to bring a wounded, precious bird back to life. It never skitters into too much heavy, teary emotion and is generously flavoured with humour and local colour that, by turns, touches crude political incorrectness with hilarious directness.
Trained in clowning and relatively old hands at bringing heavily peopled narratives to life with the raising of an eyebrow, the donning of a mask or the altering of a gait, Bennett and Cairns blew audiences away with the impeccable war-related Sie Weiss Alles in 2011. Both performers have long repertoires of similarly sophisticated and immensely watchable works. Snow Goose joins these ranks with ease.
Vortex of war
The story of a Canadian bird whisked out of its geographical context by forces we do not understand and into the vortex of European war, as well as the hearts of a young girl filled with a fierce thirst for life and a deformed, ostracised lighthouse keeper, is a glorious one that touches all the points of beautiful narration and the messy networks of life, loss and love.
Celebrating the bird’s majestic dignity against the baseness of the parochial community and the horror of the war boiling into life, the triadic nature of the work is about wise contrast, cohesion and illusion. Written for both a young and an adult readership, the work unashamedly touches cores of sentiment and flies wild and high because of this, but doesn’t allow you to leave the theatre dry-eyed.
Using puppetry, masks and pure skill in conjuring up a community, the two performers stretch themselves with fragile litheness to bring this story to life. The characters are fleshed out soundly with linguistic idiosyncrasy as the tragic history of Dunkirk, France, during World War II is given focus.
Conveying the nub of a tale of this nature is a complicated exercise. Developed as it is from the novella, it features external and internal structures that make it resonate. Externally it needs the basic narrative strokes to give it chronology, context and history. Internally, it feeds off texture: the ways in which characters interface and have accents and personalities, how poetry is interleaved in the gestures of the piece.
This texture is achieved with an enabling perfection, from the extraordinary mask work to the seascape evoked by soundscapes. It is stitched together on a small circular wooden stage as well as a set constructed of wooden crates. The work conveys a completely authentic context of 1940s technology and you can smell the passage of the birds on the beach and feel the texture of its mud between your toes. You are aware of the torsion of the sea and the way the wind blows sounds right out of a child’s voice.
And then there’s the music. Drawing from a rich mix of tunes – from the Andrews Sisters to Edith Piaf – the work bears a construction that gives a 1940s teenager the rough-and-tumble realness of an adolescent teetering on the cusp of womanhood.
Although some of the bigger story is told deliciously well with elements such as London news broadcasts, there is some blurring of the clarity of events. If you’re not familiar with the novella or the history of the British retreat from Dunkirk, you might struggle to understand the sequence of events and the horror of how they unfold, told as they are in a third-person account. This is a pity: it is this almost perfect work’s one flaw. If you know the work, however, it resonates with crispness, enabling a tale that seems humble in size from the outset to soar into the rich realms of an unforgettable classic.
The Snow Goose is adapted for stage by Jenine Collocott, James Cairns and Taryn Bennett. It is directed by Collocott and performed by Bennett and Cairns, and features puppets by Alida van Deventer, sound design by Peter Cornell and set design by Duncan Gibbon. It runs at Auto & General Theatre on the Square, Sandton, until May 16. For more information, visit theatreonthesquare.co.za.