Paper and Puppetry.
Sometimes theatre can take you to that other place. All the elements combine to transport you to the place akin to the dreamland, the subconscious, where anything can happen. I’ve had this experience before, in Red Leap Theatre’s previous work The Arrival no less. It was with high hopes that I entered the Glen Eden Playhouse for this year’s Auckland Arts Festival offering Paper Sky – A love story, and white it came tantalisingly close to a sort of transcendence, not all elements were in harmony.
It’s an obvious one, but I’ll go there: The plot of Paper Sky is paper thin. Emmet Skilton (who is seen regularly in his undies in The Almighty Johnsons) plays Henry, an author who has trapped himself in his house and fears the outside world and all its noise. He is writing a story about a world made of paper and a heroine called Lumina, bought to life as a puppet by Julia Croft. Reality and fiction blur as she and the story enter his world. Henry gets caught in the action too, becoming a puppet, and leaves his ordered everyday life to go on an imaginatively expansive and dangerous adventure. Artistic Directors Kate Parker and Julie Nolan use this simple storyline to treat us to a host of amazing theatrical sights and delights.
Paper Sky is a world that is constantly moving, the set always transforming before our eyes. It is a world where giant reindeer walk, and mountains with a rickety bridge can appear out of nowhere. The design work is breathtaking. John Verytt’s folding set gets top marks, and I love the blue toned colour scheme, aided by the ever dependable Elizabeth Whiting’s expressive costumes and Jeremy Fern’s excellent lighting design. Kate Parker receives an unusual credit for ‘Imagery design’, but with the imagery being the strongest element of Paper Sky, it is well deserved. The show’s aesthetic is wonderful really, and much of what is used onstage is made out of paper (emphasising ideas of fragility). The program reveals that the paper is specially harvested and made by ‘paper artist’ Mark Lander, and Veryt’s set is constructed out of engineered recycled card. Marvelous.
The sound design (Andrew McMillan) adds so much to the show too, the score itself sounding particularly magical and fantastic. Before the show we get into a suitable mood with a soundtrack of timeless love croons.
Emmet Skilton’s uptight Henry is mute for the most of the show, and he does excellent work conveying his feelings and fears with much subtlety. He is helped by a trio of comic characters (Veronica Brady, Alison Bruce and Justin Haiu) who follow him around, pour him tea, wipe his mouth, and seem to represent different parts of his psyche (his id?). These three are wonderfully expressive and quirky, and they also do a great job of manipulating other puppets and design elements through the show. Julia Croft is mainly tasked with bringing the Lumina puppet to life, a sort of skinnier paper rag doll. The main point of articulation is a stick at the back of the puppets head which wasn’t always moved with precision; sometimes the head would drop and the puppet would ‘die’ and I’d be pulled out of the world.
My main quibble is story. I don’t feel stories always have to be complex – simple is good – but I felt that it was the imagery that drove the story, rather than the story driving the images. The play is subtitled ‘A love story’ (Julie and Kate wanted to explore the idea of ‘impossible love’.), but I felt this love story was entirely arbitrary. I didn’t get any insight as to why Henry falls in love with Lumina, other than the fact he created her, or what Henry is to Lumina. The created dangers faced in the paper world took precedence. There are themes and ideas that that could do with more teasing out.
The show works hard, but I could never get entirely swept away. There is much to love though and many moments of awe and beauty. Read Leap continues to do excellent original imaginative work, quite unlike anybody else.
Paper Sky – A Love Story plays as part of the Auckland Arts Festival. The Glen Eden Playhouse season has finished, but will play at the Mercury Theatre from the 10th-14th March.
More information at the Auckland Arts Festival website.