It was with some trepidation that I went in to review Happy Dagger Theatre’s stage adaptation of Patrick White’s The Cockatoos. I was unfamiliar with the source material and knew very little of the acclaimed author, so I was afraid I’d be starting off on the wrong foot, or at a severe disadvantage. But then I reminded myself that the true test of any stage adaptation, it must work as a theatre piece on its own, otherwise it’s a bit of a pointless exercise.
So, with that in mind, I held out hope that I would not be lost in the audience, wondering what I was missing, wishing I was staring into a book rather than sitting in a theatre. I should have realised that with the story, script and staging in director Andrew Hale’s hands, I needn’t have been worried at all. It worked.
Now, I can’t comment at the present moment whether it remains true to the source material or whether liberties have been taken; however, by all accounts from those who have read Patrick White’s novella, it’s right as rain. So all that remains for me is to get on with the review.
Hale’s cast is, just simply, wonderful. Each performer is uniquely interesting, but they also blend harmoniously, both physically and emotionally. The best comparison I can make is that they are like well-tuned chamber ensemble; each one is essential and complementary, sometimes rising above with a solo, sometimes receding to a counterpoint, sometimes holding their place in the overall chord.
Movement director Claudia Alessi makes the most of this limited stage space for these six players. The actors move in pairs and trios, shoulder-to-shoulder; they form groups and disperse, then climb on each other. In one scene, they move about like wind-up toys, forced to travel a specific small, seemingly random path but avoid collision.
The dialogue is largely lyrical, and therefore lends itself to occasional swells of plaintive song (“Falling Into You” is composed by Ash Gibson-Greig). There’s not too much of this, and it doesn’t impede on the story’s forward motion; it’s akin to the way Shakespeare adds a song or two here and there. After all, sometimes we do sing, right in the middle of life, when the need takes us.
Lighting designer Tegan Evans gives the actors pools of light to heighten the drama of poignant moments, and eerie green and blue washes for a dreamlike atmosphere. The set (India Mehta) is just about as simple as you can get, with a single swing hanging in just the right spot on stage. The swing becomes different things throughout the piece, a door, a gate, a WW2 fighter plane; quite amazing what a single, bright idea can do.
I would love to praise each of the actors (Andrew Hale, Anna Brockway, Kingsley Judd, Janet Pettigrew, Nichola Renton, and James Sollis) individually, as their individual performances are all worthy, but it’s their common commitment to telling this story that impresses me the most. They deliver White’s words with honesty, truth and clarity. They are funny and heartbreaking, wise and child-like. They are fluid and consistent. They welcome us into their world and then gently release us back into the night with, “I love you. We love you.” And they mean it.
Happy Dagger Theatre presents
by Patrick White | adapted by Andrew Hale
Director Andrew Hale
Venue: The Blue Room Theatre
Dates: October 20 – November 7, 2015
Bookings: 08 9227 7005 | blueroom.org.au