Spare Parts Puppet Theatre presents Carnival of the Animals in Fremantle

Tanya MacNaughtonThe West Australian
Carnival of the Animals director Michael Barlow with performers Tamara Creasey, Malek Domkoc and Tommy Seah.
Camera IconCarnival of the Animals director Michael Barlow with performers Tamara Creasey, Malek Domkoc and Tommy Seah. Credit: Justin Benson-Cooper/The West Australian

Spare Parts Puppet Theatre’s latest production might be called Carnival of the Animals but this version tells a very human side of the story, set close to home.

The puppetry show features a musical suite of the same name by French composer Camille Saint-Saens — who wrote it in 1886 but forbade it being performed during his lifetime for fear the work’s humour would undermine his reputation — where each short movement evokes a funny sketch of an animal, from a proud lion striding across the land to a couple of cheeky monkeys.

It is combined with words by celebrated Australian playwright and former Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts professor Nick Enright, who was commissioned by Sydney Symphony Orchestra in the 1980s to write a set of verses to accompany the music, which at the time were performed by Noni Hazlehurst.

“Each creates a visual picture of an animal and some of its characteristics, whether it’s the donkey who has this terrible braying laugh or these elegant birds fluttering through the sky,” director and co-creator Michael Barlow says.

“When Leon (Hendroff, designer and co-creator) and I started to read them, particularly the verse about The Swan talking about the River Swan, we realised it could be set not just somewhere in Australia, but Perth. That led to the thought of, ‘What if these weren’t just pictures of animals but what if these were the inner thoughts of people?’

“Bit by bit, we found links like that and ways in where we could make a parallel between a human personality and an animal personality, which let us bring together the idea of Nick Enright’s words, Saint-Saens’ music, puppets and Perth, putting it altogether in a portrait of us.

“It makes it is a slightly impressionistic work in the way it’s composed of these parts and is a little different from other Spare Parts shows of a story that follows a character or set of characters from beginning to end.”

If this sounds familiar, it might be because the theatre company performed a staged concert Carnival of the Animals version with WA Symphony Orchestra at Perth Concert Hall in 2018.

This theatrical premiere takes all the same components — puppets, text and music — reducing the spectacle by creating a more intimate experience in its Fremantle theatre, with more emphasis on echoing Perth humanity and replacing the 40-piece orchestra with two pianists, friends Tommy Seah and Yi-Yun Loei.

The pair are joined onstage by puppeteers Tamara Creasey and Malek Domkoc, all four performers making their Spare Parts Puppet Theatre debut.

“It’s been fantastic and they’re such a hardworking group,” Barlow shares.

“A lot of the puppets are quite large-scale, with many what we call ‘backpack puppets’, where the puppeteers strap themselves in. There’s a large lion, chimp and kangaroo puppet that sits up above head height.

“They’ve been made with an ingenious method using reticulation pipe Leon came up with that keeps them strong but also very lightweight. And then the surface is skinned with fabrics, paints and other materials.

“Often when Malek is performing the lion father character, his face is visible inside the puppet, so there’s a nice double image of this giant, colourful lion and then this human is the soul inside the image of the animal.”

Seah and Loei are both enjoying being pushed a little beyond their comfort zone in Carnival of the Animals and Loei says she sees the show as the perfect opportunity to introduce children to classical music, hopefully inspiring them to become more interested in the performing arts.

“It has also been challenging because it is my first time performing in a theatre show, and interacting with the puppeteers as part of the performance,” Seah adds.

“The music sets the mood of the show, whilst the puppets bring it to life.”

Carnival of the Animals is at Spare Parts Puppet Theatre, Short Street, Fremantle until January 29.

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