Eric Carle's distinctive idiom of simple, beautiful illustration and pared-back storytelling is transposed into three dimensions.
Photo: Louis Dilion-Savage
US author Eric Carle's distinctive idiom of simple, beautiful illustration and pared-back story telling is transposed into three-dimensional theatrical form in the theatre production The Very Hungry Caterpillar Show. This new, original, all-Australian production premiered in January 2015 in Sydney. It was conceived four years ago by Sydney-based Jonathon Worsley, who was joined just over a year ago by Michael Sieders to produce the show and pull together the young and talented creative team behind this elegant production.
Worsley approached Carle about turning his four books, The Artist who Painted a Blue Horse, Mister Seahorse, The Very Lonely Firefly and the world famous 1969 classic The Very Hungry Caterpillar into a theatre show. Following what Sieders called a 'lovely mutual exchange,' Carle's creative director flew out from Massachusets to work with the The Very Hungry Caterpillar team in Australia to establish an open dialogue about how the show was to be realised. Carle's direction was that the show stay as 'true to the nature of his books as possible,' Sieders told me, adding that the intent of the show was to create 'sophisticated children's theatre' as an introduction for young audiences to the 'magic of theatre,' in a similar way to how Carle's books themselves were introductions for children to the world of reading, colour, imagery, numeracy and so on.
The show retains the elegance and high visual impact of Carle's idiom with the most beautiful puppets, 75 in all: the work of New York's The Puppet Kitchen. The performance features rich, original music and warm, sumptuous lighting, and is well-paced but with a calm decorum which soothes the nerves of parents and children alike.
This is no pantomime: it is 'high-brow' children's theatre more akin to the tradition of Asian shadow-puppet story-telling. There is minimum interaction apart from broad smiles out to the children from the young performers. The children who surrounded and accompanied me sat largely transfixed, open-mouthed throughout the show, spellbound by the steady spectacle of colour and light and sound which poured forth over its 50 minute running time.
This show is a classy offering and one feels that the creative vision of the original artist has been respectfully adhered to. Much like Carle's books, the sometimes overly literal nature of his writing and dialogue is made up for by the beauty of his illustrations, or in this case, the puppetry. The production stands back from too much showmanship to allow the original texts to speak out in all their simplicity and powerful symbolism.
The final moment of the show is the butterfly, who lifts from a three-metre high book into the air. When this happened, the children were beside themselves with delight and awe.
Carle has posited that his book about 'a little, insignificant bug who grows into a beautiful butterfly' tapped into a deep, universal need for children to be reassured that one day they too will grow up.
Forty five years after it's original publication, and 38 million copies later, Carle stated that the message of his book (unbeknownst to him at the time) probably was 'You too will grow up, you too will be beautiful, you too will fly into the world'.
When the show was over the children in the audience left the theatre with a look of deep satisfaction and focus. Many of them promptly plonked themselves down in the foyer to quietly colour in pictures at the little tables with soft crayons provided by the company.
I recommend this show to parents. Its appeal is to children. For adults it is much the experience of reading again a children's book that you have read a hundred times before, but for the children there was a magic that captured them; they saw things that, perhaps, I no longer can.
On March 31st there is a special showing at 3pm designed for children with autism and special needs.
Rating: 4 stars out of 5
The Very Hungry Caterpillar Show
Created by Jonathan Worsley
Directed by Naomi Edwards
Puppets created by New York’s Puppet Kitchen
Producer: Michael Sieders
Set Designer: James Browne
Costume Designer: Andrea Espinoza
Lighting Designer: Nicholas Rayment
Composer/Sound Designer: Nate Edmondson
Composer: Steven Baker
Chapel off Chapel, Prahran
24 March - 2 April 2015
Roundhouse Theatre, Brisbane: 14-18 July
The Q Theatre, Penrith: 24-25 September
The Q, Queanbeyan: 30 September - 4 October
The Civic Theatre, Newcastle: 9 - 10 October