The subtleties of grieving are beautifully evoked in Lemony S Puppet Theatre’s Taking the Waters, says Robert Reid
Presented at Northcote Town Hall, whose Speakeasy program has been the showcase for some excellent and surprising work this year, Taking the Waters is a new work developed in collaboration between independent puppet company Lemony S, singer-songwriter Suzannah Espie and artist Kyoko Imazu.
It tells the story of three sisters: Chook (Fiona Macleod), Duck (puppeteered by Tamara Rewse) and Maggie (Espie). Duck is dying of an unspecified disease. Chook is the stalwart of the family, stoic and strong, caring for their dying sister in small flat. Maggie is presumably the irresponsible one, the musician who can’t be trusted to fold sheets but who has to come home to help Chook now that it’s getting hard. Chook pads around the set in a faded sky-blue house coat. Maggie slouches around with her wild hair, guitar and mandolin.
We learn a remarkable amount about these women from the repetitive minutiae of their days as carers. Though the dialogue is very sparse, there is a tremendous amount communicated in the subtle emotional shifts in the repetitive action as the days and weeks wear on. We see the routine and rhythm of their grieving, how they handle it, how they don’t talk to each other. Decades of familial history echo between them in the silences.
The haunting, howling songs drift in and out of the stage as they do through of Duck’s consciousness. Throughout the show Maggie sings songs (written by Espie) when she should be caring for Duck. In Chook’s sighs and clenched fists we can see the years of Maggie’s failure to help in domestic duties, years in which Chook is left to be the responsible one.
I wonder if this repetition and exposition through incremental development doesn’t rob us of narrative specificity. I’m not sure the small rewards of knowing that emerge from the silences, the hurt looks, the resentful sighs, are worth the feeling of dreadful repetition as the cycle repeats. As the third visit from the in-home doctor concludes, as the third set of sheets needs to be folded, as the third lasagne is donated by the neighbours, we see the pain of waiting build up; but I feel detached. I know their grief, but I don’t know these women.
That said, the acting is really remarkable. As the doctor (Rewse) makes her final checks on Duck there’s a terrible weight as she returns from the bedroom, a dreadful anticipation as she finally accepts a cup of tea and sits at the table, taking the deep breath she needs to tell these two their sister is finally dying. A shudder of reflected grief runs through me at this point; but I still wonder if I might have felt more if I’d known the three of them a little better.
It’s beautiful, languid, lyrical and heartfelt. There is some gorgeous lighting, splashes and ripples of colour in places that shift through warm fadeouts and a bright white light from a window caught by a curtain blowing in the breeze. This is perhaps the most poignant image of the whole show; it breathes and pulses like the ailing body in the next room. The set is impressively constructed, a kitchen in a bedsit and a few walls that double as scrims for the shadow puppetry work. An impressively detailed and realistic rendering is achieved with only a few items.
I do wonder why this needs to be a puppet show. There are a few dream sequences, incorporating the delicate and extremely detailed paper cut-out artworks of Imazu as surreal shadow puppet landscapes, and some somewhat underwhelming Bunraku to represent the sister in her bedroom. It’s not that the puppeteering was bad, it wasn’t; more that it was very staid. The sick sister’s body breaths shallowly in bed, lies on the floor in Chook’s arms and is ministered to by the silhouettes of her sisters. There doesn’t seem to be anything here that needs puppetry to achieve it.
With the inevitable death of Duck, the final moments flood the stage with white flowers, powerfully evoking how the houses of the bereaved fill, like a field in bloom, at the passing of a loved one. It’s as though their presence explodes into petals, one final burst of life that briefly filling the empty spaces that will be left by their absence. Taking the Waters is at its most affecting in these moments: in the subtleties of grieving and the journey towards letting go.
Taking the Waters, written and directed by Sarah Kriegler, Co-created by Sarah Kriegler , Jacob Williams and Suzanna Espie, Set and costume design by Yvette Turnbull, shadow puppetry design and construction by Kyoko Imazu, Sound design by Marco Cher-Gibard, lighting design by Rachel Burke, composition by Suzannah Espie. Performed by Fiona Macleod, Suzanna Espie and Tamara Rewse. Lemony S Puppet Theatre at Darebin Arts. Until November 30. Bookings
Auslan interpreted – Thursday November 28 at 8pm