With a virtuosic performance from Paul Capsis, Little Bird is a worthily adventurous meeting of the old and new.
Paul Capsis in Little Bird. Image supplied by State Theatre Company of South Australia.
Even by the standards of the Brothers Grimm, The Juniper Tree is a strikingly macabre fairy-tale. According to the Aarne-Thompson tale type index used by folklorists, it fits type 720: ‘My mother slew me, my father ate me’. The full horror of the story – in which a young boy is beheaded by his stepsister, then butchered and cooked in a ‘sour broth’ or turned into sausages by his stepmother – has been variously toned down in retellings and adaptations down the years. J.R.R. Tolkien was one writer who thought this should not be so, and that without ‘the stew and the bones’, the story’s vision – beautiful, horrible and transcendent – was lost.
Little Bird, a loose adaptation of The Juniper Tree by Nicki Bloom for the State Theatre Company of South Australia, proves Tolkien half-right. Bloom has exorcised much of the fairy-tale’s gruesomeness but retained its gothic patina. There is no sign of the stew but it is – largely thanks to a dazzling solo performance by Paul Capsis – not without moments of beauty and transcendence.
Capsis is Wren, the little bird whose long-delayed birth irreversibly fractures his family’s quiet, rural existence. Seemingly with one parent lost to happiness and the other to grief, Wren grows up alone and unattached, finally losing all trace of his unworldliness through encounters with two other misfits – a girl in the woods whom he marries, and a gender-bending ex-woodcutter called Rocky who takes Wren in when he reaches the big city, friendless and destitute. Unlike in the original story, Wren’s problem is not an evil stepmother or a bullying sister but the very modern dilemma of not being able to fix on an individual identity that brings him happiness; man or woman, country or city boy.
Bloom’s script – its dialogue sparse and closer to verse than prose – more or less successfully hybridises the conventions of folklore, Weimar-style musical theatre and Hollywood myth telling a la Tim Burton’s soft gothic whimsy. I say more or less because there are times when the disparate influences head for an ugly clash, a problem exacerbated by Cameron Goodall’s score which overreaches somewhat in mixing David Bowie-ish torch-song theatrics, Rocky Horror Show glam and leaden adult contemporary balladry.
Capsis, however, manages to rise above it all, his wide vocal range constantly and delightfully stretching in new directions to give voice to the show’s heterogeneous cast of characters – young and old, silver-tongued and rough-as-guts. In thick white make-up and Ailsa Paterson’s part-Edward Scissorhands, part-Freddie Mercury bondage pants and military jacket combination, Capsis cuts a striking, dark fantasy figure. Director Geordie Brookman and choreographer Larissa McGowan seem, wisely, to have left Capsis largely to his own devices, the movement and blocking plain enough to rarely distract from what is a virtuosic performance.
The baroque chic is picked up in Geoff Cobham’s lighting design with its noir-ish attention to the play of shadows and strong white light although, it must be said, the low-tech, storybook stage effects cheapen rather than charm. Capsis is a compelling storyteller and hardly needs the help; I wonder how much more he, and our imaginations, might have been able to achieve with less rather than more stagecraft. Little Bird is, nevertheless, a flavoursome broth, and a worthily adventurous meeting of the old and new.
Rating: 3 out of 5 stars
State Theatre Company of South Australia/Adelaide Cabaret Festival
Writer: Nicki Bloom
Director: Geordie Brookman
Composer: Cameron Goodall
Composer/Musical Director: Quentin Grant
Designer: Geoff Cobham
Costume Designer: Ailsa Paterson
Sound Designer: June Rossetto
Associate Lighting Designer: Chris Petridis
Choreographer: Larissa McGowan
Dramaturg: Julian Meyrick
Performer: Paul Capsis
Her Majesty’s Theatre, Adelaide