REVIEW: Owls Do Cry (Red Leap Theatre)

Review by Cynthia Lam

[Singing from the Dead Room]

Based on celebrated New Zealand author Janet Frame’s first full-length novel published in 1957, Owls Do Cry is an evocative and exciting theatrical rendition by Red Leap Theatre.  Led by Artistic Director Julie Nolan and directed by Malia Johnston, the events that plague the Withers family in small town provincial New Zealand are translated and abstracted onto the stage.  Employing a mix of stunning visuals, multi-media, dance, live music and song, the play is a non-literal, metatheatical and visceral adaptation that celebrates the possibilities of live theatre. The audience are handed copies of Frame’s book at the start of the performance and asked to tap and strum them, until finally words start falling on a screen and the story begins. 

 A fierce cast of six performers enact members of the Withers family: parents Bob (Ross McCormack) and Amy (Margaret Mary Hollins), and siblings Francie (Hannah Lynch), Toby (Arlo Gibson), Daphne (Comfrey Sanders), and Chicks (Ella Becroft).  Through the use of evocative and symbolic imagery, certain key moments from the book as well as the inner lives of the characters are played out. Daphne’s inner turmoil when she is trapped in a mental institution is hauntingly portrayed when she appears to be held back by steel wires, engulfed in an expanding pit of darkness, chanting/ singing: ‘I saw a building with a thousand windows and a thousand doors, but not one of them was mine’.  The dynamics of the family relationship is symbolised through an ensemble dance/ movement piece in which bodies become entwined, meshing and merging, vying to be in front, then undulating and clinging, all six figures moving as one.  

The beauty of this performance is that it is able to reflect the poetic language in Frame’s novel, and engage with the audience’s senses in a stirring way.  This was a meshing, a mingling, a ‘contemporary response’ to an acclaimed novel, as Lynch acknowledges when addressing the audience: ‘I really liked the book.. we met in the middle.. we collided.. the book was on the other end.. and we were running towards it… it knocked the words out of me’.  My only gripe was that I did not get to hear much of Chick’s story, explained at the end almost as an afterthought: ‘someone always gets left behind… maybe because I’m the youngest’. All in all, Owls Do Cry is a stunning and evocative theatrical interpretation that feels modern, innovative and exciting.

Owls Do Cry plays Q Theatre until 2 November. 

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  1. 2019 New Zealand Dance Calendar with review links for October – December – allmyownwords

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