Childrens performance critic Gully Thompson says that Parrwang Lifts the Sky is a thrilling example of performance for young people
Children’s theatre is often at its best when it takes risks. As a child, I remember the most effective pieces of theatre being the ones that moved away from narrative conventions and pushed familiar boundaries. I particularly remember works by Polyglot and The Listies that were interactive and audience-responsive, and I especially remember shows that treated young people as a real, engaged audience – shows that didn’t patronise or make subliminal morals banally obvious, shows that presented a higher level of artistic skill and exposed me to what theatre had to offer. This is what I found again in Parrwang Lifts the Sky.
Parrwang Lifts the Sky is an ambitious theatrical blend. It marks the first collaboration between Victorian Opera and Short Black Opera and is created by composer, librettist and performer Deborah Cheetham. The work delivers a traditional Wadawurrung story through the medium of opera, which is where its ambition begins. The libretto is mostly in English, with some passages spoken in Wadawurrung language. Its atmosphere and design express communion and reconciliation, reflected both in the piece’s thematic content and the context of the two opera companies coming together.
The story of the show follows Parrwang, a magpie, preparing for her cousin to arrive from Yorta Yorta country. Two human children, Tjatjarrang and Koki, climb to the top of Parrwang’s tree and tell her of the blanket of darkness that covers the ground, meaning they can see no light and colour. Parrwang must then devise a plan to lift the sky and convince the council of birds, led by Bunjil the creator, to help lift the darkness.
Deborah Cheetham – who is the composer, librettist, assistant director as well as a performer – orchestrates an intelligent, cheerful and contemplative libretto, with soaring orchestral music. One of the most beautiful moments of this piece – one which I felt truly highlighted the beauty of the theatrical blend it presents – is where Bunjil sings in Wadawurrung language. Don Christopher’s fantastic performance as Bunjil sits among a talented cast. Rebecca Rashleigh plays the joyful and kindly Parrwang, delivering a strong operatic performance.
The risk this piece of theatre takes is in delivering an intelligent and complex work of theatre to a child audience. I can imagine that some might question whether a young audience would be receptive to the operatic nature of the piece. It’s valid to wonder whether a young audience would be able to comprehend opera vocals or be absorbed in the style of slower, contemplative pacing. However, the way children’s theatre – and theatre in general – expands is through experimentation and testing the waters. I would argue that children should be exposed to new artistic styles, and for the broadening of possibility in children’s theatre. Curiosity is a key part of developing as a child, and artworks that expand a young audience’s understanding of the arts satisfies this basic quality.
Short Black Opera’s collaboration with Victorian Opera encourages VO to widen its participation in reconciliation and to broaden the culture of the stories it tells, allowing for more Aboriginal voices in the arts. It introduces traditional Wadawurrung storytelling and language to a younger generation. Parrwang delivers an environmental message, as the council of birds are worried about the human destruction of nature. This is delivered in a manner that is both comprehensible and avoids condescension.
The opera is a work of aesthetic beauty in its set, costume and lighting design, representing stylistic elements of the traditional Dreamtime story on which the piece is based as well as the more traditionally operatic style of the robes which the council of birds wear. BJ O’Toole’s scenic design is a beautiful and subtle use of traditional Indigenous art, incorporating naturalism and modernism in the simple and beautiful designs of the trees and the natural world setting. The costumes, designed by Mel Serjeant, are especially noticeable in their blend of modern and traditional style and really bring to life the atmosphere of the piece.
What truly makes this piece strong is both an emphasis on the child within and the idea of communion. As a landmark collaboration between the two opera companies, it holds community and sharing as key themes and delivers them to a young audience in a way that feels intelligent and engaging. There is a feeling of curiosity through the piece and an emphasis on challenging authority where Parrwang and the two children confront the council of birds and convince them to help. These are themes that reflect a deep understanding of a young audience and well-crafted execution to engage and to inspire.
When we criticise children’s theatre, we too often see it through the lens of adulthood. We forget that childhood is about curiosity and discovering what lies before us in the adult world. Parrwang Lifts the Sky is what I feel children’s theatre was designed for. I remember years ago, at the beginning of my work with Witness Performance, stating the qualities that made effective and influential children’s theatre on a panel in the Fringe Festival. Now, at the end of my work at Witness, I am glad to see a show that exemplifies these things: the curiosity of childhood and the fascination with culture. In the end, Parrwang lifts the sky, and with it, she lifts the realm of children’s theatre so that we may see the light.
Parrwang Lifts the Sky, composer and librettist Deborah Cheetham. Conducted by Richard Mills, directed by Elizabeth Hill-Cooper, assisted by Deborah Cheetham. Cultural scenic design by BJ O’Toole, cultural textile design Deanne Gilson, set and costume design by Mel Serjeant, lighting design by Peter Darby. Performed by Rebecca Rashleigh, Deborah Cheetham, Don Christopher, Kiran Rajasingam, Shauntai Batzke, Jess Hitchcock and Michael Petruccelli. Victorian Opera and Short Black Opera. Available as on–demand digital access at the VO website.