What child hasn’t tried to run away from home at least once? In Africa, the latest production from Australian theatre company My Darling Patricia, we are reminded of all the reasons why home is sometimes a place worth escaping, if only in our imaginations.
Considering the precision with which Africa unfolds on stage – a delicate balance of puppetry, acting, lighting, set and sound – the fact that My Darling Patricia spent just 10 weeks creating this production is astounding. Conceived by Sam Routledge, who is also one of the performers, Africa is based on the true story of three German children who attempted to run away to Africa on their own. In this version, Courtney, Cheedy and Bubba are left to fend for themselves while their mother is out, and images of Africa on the TV inspire them to try to make their own way there. By turns very funny and very sad, Africa always feels extremely real, even though it is a puppetry performance that unfolds partially within the children’s imaginations.
Currently midway through a national tour with the production, Routledge explains that the original idea for Africa came from images of houses covered in garbage, broken toys and furniture as well as those of children being taken away from these houses “as if they were criminals.” “The tabloid media parked at the front of the houses, snapping away as the children were taken,” he remembers. “The motivation came from compassion towards those children.”
“We wanted to imagine what it would be like if these children found hope and enjoyment in their surroundings,” Routledge adds. “A landscape of Africa could emerge out of the waste.”
At times, the warning that Africa includes “adult themes” doesn’t quite seem to cover it, and Routledge says he is sure there have been negative reactions to some of the more confronting material in the show. “Some people have questioned why we need to tell that story,” he explains. “But I also think people have been surprised that puppets can be used in the telling of such stories.”
Routledge argues that Africa would not be as powerful if it were performed by real children rather than puppets. “For a start, we would have had to work with three MacCaulay Culkins, and no one wants to do that! Seriously though, people understand the ‘otherness’ of puppets. They trust their authenticity. They are not acting or faking, they are just ‘being.’ The puppets we work with are extraordinarily crafted by Bryony Anderson and audiences really warm to them.”
Africa’s conclusion is not a simple matter of good conquering evil, and Routledge admits that it is ultimately a sad tale. “The use of puppets makes it more so, I think,” he says. “People understand their vulnerability and are able to feel empathetic towards them.” At the same time, Routledge does think there is optimism to be found in Africa, pointing to Courtney’s toughness and Cheedy’s ability to rediscover his imaginative world even after it seems to have deserted him. But whether it leaves you feeling melancholy or uplifted, Africa is a reminder that the refuge of imagination is always there, no matter our surroundings.
Africa by My Darling Patricia is touring nationally in 2011 –
Top right and Cover – Africa by My Darling Patricia. Photos by Jeff Busby