The Rabbits ★★★½
Barking Gecko/ Opera Australia
Heath Ledger Theatre | Review by David Zampatti
We’ve recently seen major stage treatments of the pivotal event in the history of our continent, the collision of its indigenous inhabitants with European colonisers.
The Secret River struggled to balance its representation of contiguous cultures in conflict, while the revelatory Hipbone Sticking Out will become a milestone event in our national theatre. Now we have The Rabbits.
In the book upon which it is based, John Marsden and Shaun Tan parallel the overrunning of native animals by introduced species with the inexorable spread of colonising humans across the continent.
It’s a simple allegory, powerfully made.
Perth’s Barking Gecko and Opera Australia are a natural combination to bring The Rabbits to the stage, and the result is very largely successful.
It’s adaptor and director, John Sheedy, has realized a significant sub-creation, drawing individual characters and dramatic events from generic suggestions in the book.
He also introduces Bird, the presiding spirit and narrator of the story, played by the work’s composer, Kate Miller-Heidke. Bird perches above the landscape and warbles the plaints of the natural world as the rabbits arrive, multiply, command and destroy.
In the overture, Dawn Chorus, Miller-Heidke’s trilling soprano is fashioned by sound designer Michael Waters into an ecstasy of birdcalls — bellbirds and whipbirds. It’s a magical opening to the show.
The rabbits’ Seasick Waltz is a riotously malevolent parody of a Gilbert and Sullivan chorus. The performers revel in their broad-brush characters and are in fine voice throughout (Kanen Breen’s newly discovered countertenor is a knockout).
The show’s emotional high point is Kite Song. In an inspired image, marsupial children are spirited away in box kites while a mother (Hollie Andrew) keens the theft of her child.
Andrew sings beautifully the heartbreaking song by Miller-Heidke and librettist Lally Katz. Her performance, along with Jessica Hitchcock’s lovely lead vocal in the finale, Where, are welcome natural moments in an often highly stylised production.
Not every scene is as effective; Tea and War, the doomed resistance of the marsupials to the invaders, felt unrehearsed and flat, and the blocking of others a little insecure. These are very early days for this production, of course. It balances on many stools, and it’s unsurprising that sometimes it falls between them.
Designer Gabriela Tylesova has some knotty problems to untangle. Tan’s marsupials — something between sugar gliders and kangaroos — are effectively recreated, but his terrifyingly alien rabbits are hardly recognisable as living creatures, and Tylesova’s realisation, while theatrically ingenious, makes them incongruously pelican-like.
Trent Suidgeest’s lighting is quite marvellous, as is all of Water’s sound design. The music, arranged by Iain Grandage with customary humour and intelligence, is immaculate.
Now, who is this for? Not small children certainly. Perhaps 11-12 years and up is appropriate.
And for all of us, the terrible story buried before and beneath our entitled lives needs retelling, and The Rabbits is a significant contributor to that process.
The Rabbits runs until today.