Get the “lowdown” on the red treeThe ‘Red Tree’ is the most talked about production to come out of thisyear’s”Out of the Box” festival. Based on the acclaimed children’s book by thesame name, written by Shaun Tan. The “Red Tree” is very much an emotiveexperience, being neither narrative nor story based. Rather it incorporatesprofound imagery, mass puppetry, fantastic synthesised music and sound andan intricate corroboration of symbols to involve the audience in anemotional journey rather than a physical one.This journey does not however shy away from the darker side of life, and attimes becomes very dark and negative revolving around themes of desolation,isolation and impending doom, which are not very suitable to the “Out ofthe Box” audience range of three to eight.
The original text was written by Shaun Tan and having only a few sentencesof text the book relied heavily on the impact of some very beautiful art tocommunicate its meanings. The transformation of the text into dramatic formwas done exceptionally well. Throughout the performance the productionstayed true to the text, using a creative flair in manipulating theconventions of drama to achieve the entire range of deep emotionalexperiences found in the text. Also the performances methods ofcommunicating with the audience were in keeping with Shaun Tan’s originalideas. The play used absolutely no meaningful dialogue, substituting thepowerful imagery in the book with skilful manipulating of dramatic action,lighting and sound/music effects designed to create a mood and draw aresponse from the audience similar to the themes of the art.
Also thevisual symbolism found in the book becomes a key element to theperformances successful creation of dramatic meaning. Using an array ofsymbols, some that were part of the book, like the red leaf and tree, fishetc..
And some that were introduced with the transformation to drama. Allthese symbols are designed to provide an array of emotional responses,rather than intellectual ones that would probably be lost on the youngaudience. The production showed an innovative approach to transforming theimagery in the book into dramatic form. By using a fantastic array ofpuppetry. Including a giant fish, a mass of angry buildings and planes andeven a doll version of the main character, which was used to accomplisheffects difficult to do with a live actor.
The performance space was used effectively to create the mood and emotiveresponses that were key aspects in the creation of dramatic action andmeaning.In keeping with the book, the focus never left the little girl who was themain character, and much of the dramatic tension is created in contrastingher with her surroundings, which at times are alienating barren. Duringwhich the space may be black and empty except for her alone, or used todepict a barren loneliness like in the “Don’t know what to do” scene.
Andat other times are alienating cluttered. During which the space will befilled with erratic things designed to create a mood of chaos and notbelonging. For example the ” world is a deaf machine” or “without sense orreason” scenes. Time and place seem to hold only a symbolic value andvariate constantly with emotional context, for example whenever the giantfish appears the music and sound effects will suddenly suggest that we areunder water. Or the main character will go from a cityscape to beingsurrounded with waterAs for the actual performances, although the play focused entirely on onecharacter and only occasionally required any other actors, there was agroup of puppeteers in black who very skilfully manipulated the objects onstage, giving the surroundings a life of there own, a good example of thisis the ever present red leaf.
The reaction of the audience was varied. Throughout most of the play thethree to eight year olds were stunned to silence. However the openingsegments to many of the scenes tended to drag on a little too much for suchshort attention spans, they became restless and distracted easily,especially during the “nothing ever happens scene”Also the depth of dark negative subject matter was not suitable to that agegroup, and was a little too much for some of the young ones. Who could beheard yelling out “scary” or simply deciding not to pay attention any moreand poke the kid in the next seat instead. Though during the darkest sceneof the play, the “inevitable doom” scene, a great belch came from theconcrete dragon that had the audience in stitches, and distracted from theheavy subject matter.
The Red Tree is a fantastic emotional journey through the eyes of a smallchild and an example of skilful and effective transformation from text todramatic form. Using a dazzling array of visuals and sound to create abeautiful insight into what it means to be human and live in our world. Itis also a chance to witness some truly imaginative and innovative dramaticaction. It is however not suitable for the “Out of the Box” target audiencebecause of its dark themes of desolation and alienation.
It is defiantlyworth a look though.