The road that wasn't there

The Road That Wasn’t There

10 & 11 May 2019, MTG Century Theatre, Napier /
By Michael Hawksworth /

The Road That Wasn’t There is the second production by Wellington’s Trick of the Light Theatre Company and has played regularly across New Zealand since its 2012 debut at the Edinburgh Fringe. It is a meticulously constructed, beautifully designed and flawlessly performed “dark fairy-tale” set in Central Otago in a non-specific past framed within an oddly anachronistic present.

Gabriel, a harried modern worker whose duties consist of the rhythmic stamping of documents, is one of those characters for whom life is simply a series of problems to be sorted, tasks to be completed. His grown-up’s impatience is revealed, ironically, in his return to the bushy back-blocks to untangle the intrigues of his eccentric mother, Maggie, for whom the fanciful world of childhood, with all of it’s vivid imaginings, and unshakeable beliefs in the (seemingly) irrational has remained, undiminished. Even though this makes Maggie charming and fun, as she springs about in her bloomers, filching old maps from the local library, its also apparent that there is a darker side to what she knows, a folk world to which she has access, a magical conspiracy-laden realm poo-pooed by her sensible son.

The play is an ingenious amalgam of live action, puppetry and shadow animation, with a folksy sepia-toned aesthetic. It is also resolutely lo-fi; the stage set for the entire production consists of little more than a stack of cardboard boxes and a motley layering of large, vintage contour maps of isolated hill country hung laundry-style with wooden clothes pegs, thus recreating the very landscape in which the action is set. It is through the largest of these maps that a hidden (overhead?) projector evocatively illustrates the more supernatural aspects of the tale in detailed Prince Achmed -like silhouette.

The tale within a tale of Maggie’s childhood adventures upon the phantom road, the world of might-have-been, are handed from the live actors to beautifully crafted puppets to perform. Nevertheless, the actors are also the puppeteers, and make no attempt to hide themselves in the customary way. So what you have on the stage is, in a sense, a deconstruction of puppetry in which the character’s life is split between otherworldly silhouette, the more physical representational presence of the puppet and the finer facial and vocal expressiveness of the puppeteer (who, of course also functions/registers as an aspect of the character), sometimes all three manifestations occupying the stage at the same time. What this does is to underline the theme of the paper-thin divides between the what-is, the what-was and the what-may-be.

The archly comic theatricality of Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events, or, in its darker moments, Neil Gaiman’s Coraline, can be felt in the overall tone. The Road That Wasn’t There also shares with these a concern with detection, of an unravelling of the mysteries of true identity, true family. Maps, as much as they are intended to stabilise and quantify our practical relationship to the world, are here presented as changeable, unreliable even, and as paper passports to the multi-verse. Unsettlingly, when childhood Maggie redraws a map from memory, that is to say when she draws her own map, malign forces gain a foothold in her world.

The play’s insistence on the magic of a well-told story is embedded even in its use of materials; also, it resists the temptation to start conspicuously working an issue with the intent of being morally instructive like so much children’s fiction. Because of this, Trick of the Light Theatre turn in a re-enchantment of children’s art, even if that means moral complexity and a brush with the uncanny, and they should be congratulated for it.

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