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The Wolf and Peter

Sally Hussey

An exceptional performance by Ireland’s CosCièm Dance Theatre presents outstanding reinterpretation of the 1936 children’s classic.
The Wolf and Peter

Mateusz Szczerek as The Wolf in CoisCéim Dance Theatre's The Wolf and Peter by David Bolger. Photograph by Ros Kavanagh.

With its variant title, The Wolf and Peter opens audiences to experience beyond the story’s irrepressible familiar reception. Where the production makes tacit hallmarks of the original – the courage and imagination of Peter’s exploration beyond the garden gate – it comes alive in taking the wolf’s point of view.

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Based on Sergei Prokofiev’s classic symphonic tale – a staple of children’s theatre repertory – commissioned by The Moscow State Children’s Theatre to educate children to music, as each character is identified by a musical instrument  – the pedagogical intent of the original is swiftly dealt with.

The Wolf and Peter shreds the orchestration-reliant narrative. Although the production retains Prokofiev’s piano reduction, performed entirely – and superbly – on upright piano, the characters’ reconstruct elements of movement – the duck’s waddle, the shrug of the bird, the cat’s slinking – and duplicitous agility, the stern grandparental tic-toc regulation – as performers (Lance Coburn/Ivonne Kalter/Jonathan Mitchell/Emma O’Kane/Mateusz Szczerek/Matthew Williamson) deliver the original from its symphonic moorings to tell the tale in contemporary dance.

The characters – out of costume – pick over the piano keys like a playful reverie, broken only by erupting laughter – as they muddle through the key motifs of the well known score: the Bird; the Duck; the Cat; the Wolf; Peter and his Grandfather are made playfully familiar, as if in a game. When he appears, the brutal, muscular strength of the Wolf presents a bracing blend of contemporary dance and a want-to-touch-it kind of kineticism.

Echoes of contemporary life, in other hands, could suggest a weakness of the production. After the Wolf is made captive, the bravado of the hunters is theatrically writ large in taking a selfie, with quelled wolf underfoot, reversing the original story. But in director and choreographer David Bolger’s vision, the darker side of social media is not too far from the sentiment – capturing the wolf is a moment to be visually extemporized for social media.

1930s Europe of the original is palpable in characterisations. But where pianist Lance Coburn, appears rather to have walked out of George Melies film – hair akimbo to the sky, big bright yellow bow tie, the haze and shadowplay that introduce the Wolf point to longstanding traditions of stage and visual culture. The curmudgeon Grandfather, shrilly represented by a grandfather clock, parodies and extemporises the incursion of grandparental authority of the original.

But this is not a nostalgic glance at well-worn classic; nor a knowing intellectualisation of its political origins. The heart-grabbing performance between the Wolf and Peter, true to the production’s reversing the original title, presents an almost symbiosis between them.

It would be difficult to find a more sincere production of so-called children’s theatre. The imaginatively designed sets and costumes (Monica Frawley) and lighting (Sinéad McKenna) – a scaled back open stage of green pillars that indexes the forest beyond the garden gate – are coupled with the superb piano accompaniment.

Peter and the Wolf has witnessed several contemporary incantations since Prokofiev’s inception – and in many artistic forms: it’s 2008 Oscar winning animation is preceded by David Bowie’s iconic 1992 recording.

But this Irish dance production achieves its reach: it does for dance what the original did for music. The familiarity of the score is more like a structural skin. The multi-sourced dance – from high-modern to contemporary – and almost pre-cinematic design, reveals more about movement than orchestral know how.

Peter’s exploration beyond the garden gate, and return at the production’s conclusion, suggests less coming-of-age than a coming-to-know – a world of wonderment; of embracing terror and fear; of imagination that resonates in symbolism – and magic.

The production, which runs just under an hour, is aimed at over-sixers. But to limit this to children’s theatre is to miss its ability to touch on what is inexpressible in the original – the spiritual, emotional and psychological magic of theatrical performance.

Rating 5 stars out of 5

The Wolf and Peter

CoisCèim’s Dance Theatre/Arts Centre Melbourne
Cast: Lance Coburn, Ivonne Kalter, Jonathan Mitchell, Emma O’Kane, Mateusz Szczerek, Matthew Williamson
Direction and choreographer: David Bolger
Costume and set design: Monica Frawley
Lighting design: Sinead McKenna
Composition: Connor Linehan
Sound design: Ivan Birthistle and Vincent Doherty

Arts Centre Melbourne
1-2 July 2017

Additional dates: Sydney Opera House
12-16 July 2017

What the stars mean?
  • Five stars: Exceptional, unforgettable, a must see
  • Four and a half stars: Excellent, definitely worth seeing
  • Four stars: Accomplished and engrossing but not the best of its kind
  • Three and a half stars: Good, clever, well made, but not brilliant
  • Three stars: Solid, enjoyable, but unremarkable or flawed
  • Two and half stars: Neither good nor bad, just adequate
  • Two stars: Not without its moments, but ultimately unsuccessful
  • One star: Awful, to be avoided
  • Zero stars: Genuinely dreadful, bad on every level

About the author

Sally Hussey is a Melbourne-based writer, curator and independent producer.

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