Directed by Julie Nolan and Kate Parker
Devised by Red Leap Theatre
Q Theatre, Auckland | June 4-13
Red Leap Theatre’s latest effort is a visually stunning foray into the world of magic-realism. Set in an unnamed desert landscape, Dust Pilgrim follows the journey of a young girl in search for freedom, specifically from the confines of her mother’s grip. It’s a simple story told beautifully, but perhaps not too clearly.
Most impressive in Dust Pilgrim is the mostly wordless world-building, conveyed primarily through physicality on a stage with just pulleys and hanging sandbags. But, as impressive as it is, the lack of dialogue is also a considerable handicap, leaving the play with an incredibly flimsy narrative backbone. Directors Julie Nolan and Kate Parker do a good job of compensating for this by putting emphasis on the performances of their flawless cast and the show’s spectacular design elements.
As the story’s heroine, Ella Becroft has a fragile presence that is otherworldly and familiar all at once. Her physicality is loaded with such frantic urgency that you can’t help but share her desire to escape. Alison Bruce is unexpectedly perfect in this cartoonish exaggeration of matriarchal terror. And Tom Eason shifts between multiple roles seamlessly, including a faded memory of a father and a highly amusing circus leader.
But the large amount of the emotional texture of the play is heavily reliant on the elaborate sound design of Thomas Press, giving us layers upon layers of environmental and psychological cues, though occasionally drowning out the rare vocalisations of the cast.
The main reason to watch Dust Pilgrim is to experience the first-class theatrical magic the company have hiding up their sleeves. Some truly hypnotic and surprising stage images pop up when you least expect them—possibly the most stunning you’ll see all year. Clearly Red Leap have the skills and tools in their arsenal to create great works of theatre, and have done so in the past, if the reputations of The Arrival and Paper Sky are anything to go by. Unfortunately, Dust Pilgrim suffers from a lot of the same problems that plagued their last show Sea, where the vagueness of the storytelling ultimately undermined the potential for a truly immersive experience.
While I appreciate Red Leap’s confidence in the audience’s abilities to use their imaginations, the desert world of Dust Pilgrim feels incomplete, lacking some essential storytelling components. At just over an hour, Dust Pilgrim is far from boring, but the final scenes begin to lose steam, never meeting the ambitious expectations set up by its strange and surreal opening.
Those looking for exceptionally devised physical theatre should not miss Dust Pilgrim, even if its best moments feel largely disconnected from one another. This is a piece of theatre that deserves more development to reach the obvious potential in the material. In its current shape it merely teases at greatness, leaving a beautiful showcase of the company’s talent rather than forming a completely satisfying story.