The Bookbinder

The Bookbinder

Hawke's Bay Arts Festival /
19 October 2019 /
Trick of the Light Theatre /
By Anna Soutar

There is a moment when you go past the door of your child’s room, or that gap between the wall and the bookcase, or the triangle of space made between two chairs in the living room, when you hear several voices and considerable drama coming out. You can look in, or stay for a while and listen, or just go on by, with a smile. Your child will be there, with some toys from the dolls’ house, a collection of animals, or boats, or cars, some lego, and that space will have been transformed into a jungle, or somewhere under the ocean, in outer space, or deepest darkest Anywhereville. If only you could record it you think, or film it, but the moment has passed. That is the moment captured by Ralph McCubbin Howell and Hannah Smith for this story of the bookbinder’s apprentice who foolishly leaves out a page from an important storybook that he has been tasked with repairing. The play is his story of what happens next …

That book has been brought in by a mysterious old lady. It is one of those really old volumes of storytales, with pop-up pages, and detachable characters. It has come to the bookbinder to be repaired and like the apprentice in Disney’s Fantasia, it all goes wrong when the apprentice tries to take a shortcut to fix the problem. We found him in Napier’s Paisley Stage, which is a magic zone lined with books and memorabilia of all kinds, where we saw him use the desk lamp on the bookbinders table, to illustrate his story, as well, one of the standard lamps became the horrendous eagle’s nest, and the horn of the old fashioned gramophone was some sort of great trap to catch passing apprentices.

This New Zealand theatre company has performed in many countries around the world but there can be few with such a distinctive and appropriate venue. I am sure I saw the spider swivel his head around to listen to the story of the ‘boy’. Shadows and hand puppets join the spider on the ceiling and I could smell the glue – he remarked that he uses a considerable amount of glue when repairing bibles (“they seem to go together”).

Ralph McGubbin Howell has a most pliable face, taking on two and sometimes three characters as the story continues, at once childlike, or at others gruff or fierce, with no apparent change of anything but his face. His body is equally supple. He climbs all over, above and under the bookbinder’s work table and furnishings. There is no change of costume although he makes great use of the capacious pocket in his workman’s apron, little alteration in the lighting, the props are what is there in the room – a lampshade, a piece of paper. There is music, gently, in the background but it is there to help, not direct.

The boy acts out the story and there is no doubt the book is a primary performer. The drawings and words tumble over each other out of the pages, and at one time we are privileged to watch as he mends a page with the most careful stitching. Those pages emerging from the pop-ups are extremely detailed and intricate, the black and white necessary because these buildings are made up of – the printed pages of a storybook, of course!

We are witnessing a further development in the story of stories. Two centuries ago, the Victorians carefully snipped stiff paper to make greeting cards in lacey layers. In those days books with movable elements were treated as precious artefacts, so when we invented interactive digital technology, children knew how they worked! It has been done before and this Festival has given it due honour with The Bookbinder. The play, acted out in the quiet of a bookbinder’s work room by a small boy, was an excellent choice.

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