The Book of Everything

ARTS, Theatre & Performing Arts

img_bookofeverythingAdapted by Richard Tulloch from the novel by Guus Kuijer | Directed by Sophie Roberts
Presented by Silo Theatre in collaboration with Auckland Arts Festival | Q Theatre, March 14-22

When the average person thinks of professional theatre, they think of a static set and a bunch of characters complaining about their suffocating ennui or social impoverishment. Not that there is anything wrong with an old-fashioned drama when it’s done well. (I love Chekhov, Ibsen, O’Neil, and their ilk tremendously.) But rare is the show that can convert non-believers, displaying the full range of theatre’s capabilities as a transcendent medium.

The Book of Everything is that show.

On the surface, The Book of Everything is dreary and unpleasant material, dealing with domestic abuse and the loss of faith in a devout Christian household in post-WWII Amsterdam. But, through the eyes of “nine… almost ten” year old Thomas Klopper (Patrick Carroll), the material takes on an innocence and optimism that is undeniably refreshing. The focus is never on wallowing in misery, but celebrating the human spirit as a unifying thing.

The convention of having an adult play a child can be terribly naff, but Carroll’s performance as Thomas avoids these pitfalls. Theatre at its most magical makes no attempts to hide its tricks, but manages to put you under its spell anyway. At times he’s a touch twee, but always appropriately so. It’s a heart-warming performance that reminds us of that innate curiosity all children have, even if we’re far past being children ourselves.

Sam Snedden initially seems miscast in the role of the bible-thumping patriarch of the family, or at least misdirected. He’s not quite what you’d expect from a monstrous European patriarch, but then we realise there are no obvious monsters in The Book of Everything. Snedden successfully portrays a man living in fear, oozing desperation as he worships God because that’s all he knows. Though as hard as the production tries to humanise him, the text never fully manages to find the arc necessary to allow the character to feel real. The result is an abstract figure of pity anchored by an admirably sympathetic portrayal. As Thomas’s mother, Mia Blake has an almost equally tough role. A beaten woman is never easy to watch, and even harder to portray without falling into the trap of being merely a victim or cautionary tale. The period setting certainly helps to neutralise this a bit, but it’s Blake’s heartrending performance as a woman whose fundamental strength is her love for her children that shines through.

Olivia Tennet nails it as Thomas’s sister Margot, in a far more dynamic role. Like all good older siblings, she is simultaneously the bully and fearsome protector of her younger brother. But under the surly surface lies a girl whose been worn down by the distress of a troubled family life. If Thomas bubbles with curiosity beneath the surface, Margot rumbles and cracks with a bitter defiance. She is precocious and well aware of the harsh realities of the world, too old to hide amongst fantasies and daydreaming.

It’s the relationship between Thomas and his next-door neighbour, the so-called witch, Mrs. van Amersfoort (Rima Te Wiata) that drive the heart of the play though. Through her mentorship and guidance, we witness Thomas’s coming-of-age. We experience the joys of reading books, the joy of being brave and the joys of growing up. It’s here that Thomas glimpses at a world bigger than what he sees at home, bigger than what his father tells him. And Te Wiata’s performance conveys this bigness big time. Full of infectious exuberance, she could be best described as the conscience and moral compass of the play, steering Thomas in the right direction without ever belittling him.

If the heavy-handed portrayal of Christianity in the play can sometimes come off as overbearing and (ironically) preachy, Tim Carlsen’s winning performance as Jesus Christ helps to balance this out. He is basically just a cool cat who reminds us that answers never come easy, a cherry companion concocted by Thomas’s imagination. But, as fun as imagination can be, he mostly just echoes words and phrases Thomas has already heard. He’s ultimately someone for Thomas to retreat to in times of crisis, without providing an easy way out.

Then we have Auntie Pie (Jennifer Ward-Lealand) and Eliza (Michelle Blundell) who are no less important to the story. Auntie Pie makes for an interesting contrast to Thomas’s mother, being a more modern and confident woman, but living under similar conditions. Ward-Lealand manages to elevate her beyond being a mere stock character, more than just a fleeting lesson in feminism. And Blundell plays Thomas’s adolescent crush with utter charm, her leather leg only adding to her allure. It’s these minor characters that populate the world of The Book of Everything that make it feel so lived-in. This story might be told form Thomas’s perspective, but it’s not just his story.

Both simplistic and ingenious, the set design by John Verryt is a thing of wonders, encapsulating the idea of magic realism. At face value, it’s a dull, monochromatic, and lifeless gigantic blackboard. But when combined with Sean Lynch’s lighting and coloured chalk it’s brought to life, revealing additional layers, like a coin waiting to be flipped. My one reservation is that wished it was used even more, pushed further as a display of Thomas’s daydreaming destination. And if the set lacks any elements in it to convey the time and setting, the costume design by Kirsty Cameron fixes that, dressing everyone in perfectly quaint attire. The production is rounded off with the unforgettable sound design by Thomas Press, including the foley sound effects performed live by the supporting cast.

The violence inflicted on Thomas’s mother by his father is handled with the appropriate tastefulness, considering the context of children’s theatre, without undermining the shockwaves it sends through the household. The corporal punishment between father and son, however, is less effectively executed, showing perhaps too much restraint, though no less awful. But it’s the scenes around the dinner table that are the most uncomfortable and affecting, perfectly displaying the stifled family under a mask of pretence and ritual, as the elephant in the room grows larger and larger. It’s the handling of this material that makes the play so unique amongst the landscape of children’s theatre. Writing for young people should always be done with a sense of responsibility, and responsibility lies in honesty. To refrain from the truth, regardless of who your audience is, is an act of condescension. The Book of Everything treats all audience members with the respect they deserve.

It would be remiss of me not to mention the hype and expectation surrounding the production. This is, after all, the first show under the helm of Silo’s new artistic director Sophie Roberts, as well as being a co-production with the Auckland Arts Festival. Not to mention the major selling point of the show is that it’s “a theatre favourite for all ages.”

Does it meet its lofty expectations? As a piece of children’s theatre it doesn’t get much better than this. But, as the play ended, I couldn’t help feel like I had missed something, a beat or particular resonance in the script. Something that prevents me from calling it an outright masterpiece, despite it having all the makings of one. Maybe, for all its best efforts to challenge young audiences, it’s afraid to leave them feeling anything but uplifted. Leaving the theatre feeling good is normally not something to complain about, but when dealing with dark and complex subject matters such as domestic abuse, I feel somewhat cautious about things wrapping up too nicely. A fault that ultimately lies with the mostly fantastic script by Richard Tulloch. But a rushed happy ending is a minor complaint. If it never quite reaches the heights it sets out to achieve, it’s only because the bar has been set so high. That it manages to even come close to reaching it is monumental.

In the past, Silo Theatre Company’s modus operandi might have been challenging works that might be labelled transgressive or visceral. It remains to be seen whether this will continue to be the case, or if that even matters. But while we can’t be sure what direction Silo will take in the future, it’s safe to say it lies in good hands. More than merely having a sense of craft or a vision, Sophie Roberts displays the most important thing in any storyteller: heart.

I can’t imagine a better show to start off Silo’s new season.