'The Red Tree' – Featherweight Theatre | Edinburgh 2013
Featherweight Theatre’s adaptation of Shaun Tan’s picture book – a profound and beautiful exploration of depression – is a bold choice for an Edinburgh children’s show. The (very short) text of the book is never spoken, but presented in its entirety in a range of creative visual ways – pulled out of a bottle, chalked onto boxes, unfolded out of newspaper – with each spread of the book getting a short devised scene inspired by, but not recreating, Tan’s imagery.
Some are successful – the wall of Financial Times newsprint that becomes a warmly glowing shadow screen is a delight, especially when the cold-lit faces of the performers appear around and through it. There’s a sudden light to signal a big ship and a stack of backlit boxes as an elevator. There are a couple of sweetly illuminated versions of the book’s iconic red leaf that leads us through the story.
Others are less successful – “the world is a deaf machine” becomes a crushingly generic physical theatre office, all clichés in place: synchronised mock typing, ties, running. A briefly-glimpsed cardboard fish-head needs a lot more visual support and stronger animation to be a threatening piece of puppetry.
Overall, the piece feels a bit like a first draft, as if another more rigorous look at the devising would help sharpen and clarify. Both the physicality and, in particular, the object animation are often lacking in precision – there’s a floaty default rhythm, reverent but unspecific, that just doesn’t deliver. And in adapting a book that is full of richly crafted detail and beauty, it would help to aim for higher production values.
There is a bigger question about this mode of adaptation though. Reading the book, you get a full clause, usually a complete thought, and then the time to explore the images on its page at your own pace, and ponder.
In the less flexible timing of theatre, Featherweight mainly choose to divide the text up through the relevant scene, which means you’re often holding half a thought while trying to follow the imagery – it’s not an invalid choice but I wish they’d try some other options. Curiously, it has the effect of universalising but weakening the meaning of the words.
It’s often left to Rob Hart’s potent and atmospheric music to drive the piece forwards. However, as a young company, Featherweight are to be commended for taking on a serious and challenging project and largely making it work. I look forward to seeing what they do next.
'The Red Tree'