Theatre

The cusp of adulthood

Push to children's classic: A scene from the musical

Push to children's classic: A scene from the musical   | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

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Marked by artistic ingenuity and simple plotlines, “Emil and the Detectives” engaged the young at heart in all age groups

Australian theatre company Slingsby's acclaimed production- Emil and the Detectives, premiered in India with an enthusiastic response in Delhi. Reviving a German children's classic from the last century, the play was anchored in stunning stagecraft, vivid storytelling and competent performances. Artistic ingenuity and simple plotlines blended to present a family entertainment that was captivating for children and appealed to adult sensibilities.

Once upon a time

The 1929 novel penned by Erich Kästner has been a favourite for stage and cinema adaptations, the first one dating back to 1931. Emil and the Detectives was a path-breaking literary classic in pre-Nazi Germany for multiple reasons. It was also the only book by Kästner that eluded censorship while the rest of his books were banned in the Nazi era due to their radical politics. A book for and about children, the work circumvents direct dissent. But it also wraps the adventures of young people around the subtle yet strong undercurrent of conflicts that remain equally relevant today. It touches upon seemingly simple yet organically complex questions like - "What makes a town home?" It was one of the earliest children's literature to position the trusting, innocent world of a child against the cunning, nefarious adult world.

While the original text is rather dark and dystopic, Slingsby's stage adaptation by Nicki Bloom sways between the comic and the dreadful. Primarily a detective thriller, the story gently swerves into the themes of friendship, community, courage and compassion.

A boy from a small town, Emil, is entrusted with money by his mother as she sends him to visit his grandmother in the city. Tricked and robbed in the train, little Emil vows to get the money back. He is soon overwhelmed by the vast city and outsmarted by the elusive and experienced thief. As he is about to give in to helplessness, a gang of children offer to help him get justice.

Light and shadow

The production design heightens the sense of intrigue and mystery in the play. True to its signature style of immersive theatre, Slingsby uses intricate lighting and miniature cutouts, to play with scale, distance, figures and perspective. Often tipping its hat to the expressionist visuals that contextualised the original German work, dark and grand cityscapes are created through this interplay between light and shadow.

As young audience members come in to watch the show, they are invited to craft cutouts that would 'create the city' in the play. This is an inventive device that draws the children into the theatrical world as co-creators of an imagined city.

Another striking visual is the train ride, where colourful animation gives the effect of a moving landscape. Geoff Cobham’s lighting and Wendy Todd’s set design transform the scenography seamlessly from dark cityscapes to vivacious playgrounds. The linear plot and layered design come together to generate theatre anchored in magical realism.

Sound and the city

The musical score by Quincy Grant is nuanced and versatile. It compliments the stage action and gives the production a neat, rhythmic quality. In an extensive chase sequence through the city, the score is layered with city sounds and racy music, punctuated by a horn that also becomes the audio cue for the children's group to communicate without raising any suspicion. While the movements get repetitive and predictable in this long scene, the music holds it together by intensifying the suspense and speed. The recorded score features 10 musicians and a choir of 40 children.

Another ingenuous use of sound is the depiction of the other children apart from Emil. There is no actor to play these characters. The other children roles are created through painted portraits and voices of the children. An evocative moment emerges when each of these child-characters talk about the first time they stayed away from home. The scene is built around these vignettes as brief interview bytes and makes these invisible characters real through voice and emotion.

Morphing into multiple roles

The two-actor play features Elizabeth Hay as Emil and Tim Overton as all the other characters, including the narrator. Hay carries off the role with grace and wonder. She carves a child who is neither very childish or cute, nor wiser than his age. It's a child who takes himself seriously. Largely a devised production, Hay says, she got in touch with her inner child during the making of the play, "I realised I was such an anxious child, I would just want to tell my child-self to relax a bit."

The play opens with Overton's interaction with the audience in a town with 'a unicorn without a horn'. The clown-like narrator gradually transforms into Emil's mother, the wicked thief, Emil's helper and sometimes just a powerful narrating voice. Overton transitions easily into characters, giving each one a unique posture, vocal flair and identity. "It is challenging to play different characters with swift shifts," says Overton, "so I started with picking out a characteristic for each and building deeper into that."

Hay and Overton share a fascinating stage chemistry and they execute the choreography delightfully. They mime, move, dance and run with agility, precision, in coordination with each other and the music (which was developed alongside the movements during the rehearsals).

Growing up is no child's play

Slingsby’s Artistic Director, Andy Packer said, “The play is about growing up, it is a journey of discovery and self-discovery, the value of friendships and learning about trust and taking risks.” Navigating the adult world is every child's greatest adventure. Emil and the Detectives takes us to the cusp of the two worlds where adults reminisce about their childhood and children look ahead at the action that awaits them.

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Printable version | Jan 27, 2020 1:43:42 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/entertainment/theatre/the-cusp-of-adulthood/article26031018.ece

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