The Anti-Arrival [by James Wenley]
Going in, the talking point is how Red Leap have downsized from their large ensemble company, the world-building of The Arrival, and the giant creatures of Sea. Dust Pilgrim is a nimble show for a smaller venue and three performers (plus crew member), designed artistically and economically for ease of touring.
Going out, the big news is that Red Leap has gone a little dark. While Red Leap has always had this edge in the background of their work, their previous shows have built a kid and school friendly reputation. This time directors Julie Nolan and Kate Parker have extended this edge further. Dust Pilgrim isn’t frightening, but the stakes are life and death.
If you’ve seen The Arrival, you might remember one of the first images: A family unit, mother, daughter and father, clinging so tightly to each other they had become one body. In the Auckland seasons, the mother and daughter were played by Alison Bruce and Ella Becroft, who reunite for Dust Pilgrim. In The Arrival, Bruce and Becroft stay behind while their husband/father travels to a new world looking for work, and they eventually join him in this new homeland. With these casting echoes, Pilgrim plays out as an alternative nightmare scenario in which we follow the mother and daughter left behind. Becroft’s father, played in flashback/memory by Tom Eason, has long been missing. Bruce says everything will be alright when he returns, but at the back of the stage we see the same action repeated: Eason being shot during a gun battle, and disappearing in a cloud of grey dust. Bruce and Becroft fend for themselves on a plain that has forgotten what the rain tastes like, and can only fantasise what the sea looks (like the sky turned upside down).
For their inspiration, Nolan and Parker cite the magic realist style of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and have also cited the atrocities conducted by Boko Haram. Knowing this, what surprises is that the cruelty that is inflicted on Becroft’s character is by her own mother. Bruce dominates, berates, and shames. Becroft’s physicality is jerky and scattered – later she is called “chicken girl” – and her appearance suggests someone deeply traumatised. After uncovering a secret, Becroft seizes her chance to escape. Bruce goes after her, like a hen trying to find her chick, but we’re not sure we want her to succeed.
With fewer resources in terms of bodies on stage and large set pieces, Nolan and Parker have innovated to create a really remarkable aesthetic. A visible pulley system, from set designer Poppy Serano, is used by the actors and crew to change the stage picture, from sand slowly drifting out of a series of bags, to a desert monastery. Most of Red Leap’s trademarks are accounted for – puppetry, lifts, scale – but just when you think you’ve seen it all they bring out something new. Three cardboard boxes propel an extended sequence of a travelling circus, with a host of curiosities to be revealed as the boxes move themselves into different configurations. Rachel Marlow weaves wonder in her lighting design, bottling the particles of dust and sand in the light’s beams. Charlie Baptist’s costumes are particularly inventive with a classier Mad-Max vibe.
Red Leap, as always, have nailed the visual and sensual experience. From a danse macabre skeleton, to Tom Eason’s grinning desert monk, there is much that will remain in your head after the show. But the story does not yet feel fully realised. The mother’s cruelty is given a cause in the conclusion, but there is something big missing if this is to be the story: forgiveness and reconciliation. After investing in Becroft’s journey, the swift ending is unfulfilling. Further attention to the conclusion could improve the audience’s experience of the work. So too could more clarity surrounding Becroft’s task, and purpose, of collecting and balancing dust-sand, of which I spent much of the early part of the story obsessing over.
With Dust Pilgrim, Red Leap journey out in a bold new direction, but they need to keep pushing that edge out further still.
Dust Pilgrim is presented by Red Leap and plays at Q Loft until 13 June. Details see Q.