Journeys of the Happy BuddhaThe Spare Parts Puppet Theatre is not only hosting the UNIMA Congress and World Puppetry Festival, held this year in Perth (and for the first time in the southern Hemisphere), but they have also prepared a few puppetry plays for the extensive and impressive UNIMA program. Journeys of the Happy Buddha is one of them, which I had a chance to see. The play is directed by Ralf Rauker, and presented by Contemporary Performance students from the School of Communication and Arts of the Edith Cowan University, and from the Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts.

The opening of Journeys of the Happy Buddha, staged in the gardens of Perth’s Government House, made me think this would be a site-specific play, which means the work takes place in venues adapted from other purposes, not inside the traditional building. I was soon disappointed to find out this wasn’t the case: the prologue does take place in a garden, but then the audience is taken by actors and puppets through the streets of Perth CBD, to the Perth Concert Hall Verandah. There, in a traditional theatre stage setting, most of the play then takes place. I usually dislike this kind of mixture, where site-specific is combined with conventional stage. (One of my worst experiences in theatre was exactly during a play with mixed settings: during half of the presentation the audience was kept inside a bus going to a nowhere place; at arrival, we were then taken to a conventional theatre with no way out, where the play was acted). Journeys of the Happy Buddha isn’t such a disaster, but I still think it would have been better if not mixing a site-specific setting with the traditional stage.

The prologue in the secluded gardens of the Government House was beautiful, especially the scene in which a white boat crosses a pool, illuminated by a single spotlight. As we moved to the Perth Concert Hall Verandah, it was clear the director had Bertolt Brecht’s work as an inspiration: at the beginning, an actor interprets one of the German playwright’s fragments. From there on it’s easy to see Brecht in most of the plot. Journeys of the Happy Buddha tells us the story of a Happy Buddha who decides to come back to Earth to check how the humans are living. The same idea is found in Brecht’s work, especially in the parable The Good Woman of Setzuan, and had already been used in Strindberg’s “Dream” play. Like other gods before him, after coming back to Earth the Happy Buddha finds himself surrounded by unhappiness, poverty and war. Like other gods, he is misunderstood by most humans, especially those who are in charge: more specifically the US president, who is, of course, against Buddha’s revolutionary ideas of peace, freedom and equal rights. The Happy Buddha’s end would be the same as other revolutionaries if he wasn’t a god: death.

The Spare Parts Puppet Theatre, and a young crowd of technical staff and actors onstage, did a wonderful job in designing and in manipulating the puppets. Most impressive is the war scene: puppets that appear are at the same time technically simple, but sophisticated enough so that the audience doesn’t need anything else to understand the cruelty of the battle. Although I would have preferred to have seen the whole play in the same spot, either the gardens or the Perth Concert Hall Verandah, Journeys of the Happy Buddha as a play is exactly like the puppets used onstage: simple, innocent, but also touching and revolutionary. And that again made me think of Bertolt Brecht’s work.

Performing Hearts Project in collaboration with Edith Cowan University & Spare Parts Puppet Theatre present
Journeys of the Happy Buddha

Venue: The Government House Gardens & Perth Concert Hall - Verandah
Dates/Times: April 2 – 5 @ 6:30pm
Duration: 90 minutes (no interval)
Price: $16
Bookings: BOCS (08) 9484 1133
Tickets available on the door, unless sold out prior to the event

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