There is a flock of swallows that swoops low across the clifftop nearby. This kind of joyful flight, that windy rush of ornithological freedom, is at the heart of Perth Theatre Company The Last Great Hunt’s Falling Through Clouds, which was performed at this year’s Sydney Festival.
But if the romance of flying has the potential to border on dreary sentimentality, then this performance’s technical bravura provides a distraction. There is puppetry, animation, real-time video footage, cracking light and sound displays and a motivating sound track. This constitutes a substantial audio-visual cavalcade to be absorbed over a swift 60 minutes.
I love functional aesthetics. I love a good pantomime. I love a good cautionary tale about natural ecologies. Falling Through Clouds absorbs some qualities of all three without fully claiming any single one.
So, to the functional aesthetics first. You can see the puppeteers working the young girl and the birds. This is metafictive intent, whereby the hand or voice of the maker or the author is present within the work. The obvious presence of technical function disrupts our experience of suspended disbelief.
In fiction, in film and in theatre alike, we are used to having that suspended disbelief experience splintered. We are used to knowing who’s got their hand up the puppet.
However, there are some clunky functional elements to this play that are unnecessary. For instance, the male adult puppeteer speaks the lines of the little girl-puppet and sounds like one of the silly Monty Python actors, creating an absurdity that jars.
Yet other moments are gems, such as when the two puppeteers work together to make the girl-puppet scale a high building wall, using animated drawings projected onto a screen (bed sheet). The use of real-time video to project the emotion of the actor’s face or to maximise the cracking open of the bird egg is highly effective. The use of sculpted, blown and flown paper – as birds, as loss and as flight - is skillful.
Then, the pantomime.
If panto is family-style entertainment with music and comedic interludes, then Falling Through Clouds shaves close to the genre. Previous productions by The Last Great Hunt, devised by Tim Watts include The Adventures of Alvin Sputnik, another animated puppet work about a deep-sea explorer.
There is family-style sweetness to the awkward relationship between the ornithologist Dr Mary Miller and her perky and socially inept assistant Eric. There are also the child-like imagery of hot air balloons and the use of screen projections to represent bird flight, (just as silhouettes and illusions were once used in 19th-century pantomime). Yet these elements seem conflicted with the production’s serious subtext of extinction fear and false pride.
This leads to the third element: the cautionary tale.
This kind of tale is a narrative where we are urged to take care, where we are shown imminent danger, in a metaphoric mode rather than a didactic one. In fact, perhaps this show’s best feature is its narrative drive. It’s not a complicated plot: Dr Mary Miller loved birds as a girl and becomes an ornithological researcher who travels to an isolated island, Valaticus, to incubate the last two remaining male and female eggs of an endangered bird species to breed a new colony … but it all goes fatally wrong.
The sentiments of extinction fear are consistent: humans are incapable of fixing the devastation to nature we have reaped. Post-human life looms and the futile attempts to re-introduce species and manipulate nature’s processes are no more than hubris. The self-serving Dr Miller places her romantic love of birds-in-flight above the protocol of the science lab … with devastating consequences.
Eric does not forgive her. She is not redeemed. This is the cautionary tale.
For theatre directed at children and adults alike, the tragic ending is a relief. If the finale had been saccharine, the experience would have left a sickening aftertaste. A cautionary tale needs a bad outcome. But is there a lesson to learn? Breeding facilities often fail? Human capacity for self-sabotaging is overwhelming? The extent of human arrogance (in its ability to affect the world) is laughable? Are these the narrative intent?
Yes. Despite the aggregation of disparate technical elements, I left the performance feeling sure that the apocalyptic ending had not been undermined. This story speaks to a future dystopic existence, not dissimilar to the isolated island of Valaticus, where laboratories function as virtual ecologies and where one wrong move will precipitate the extinction of more than one bird species, namely, the entire human race.
Species are disappearing. The future cannot hold. This anxiety is palpable in the performance and I applaud the company’s uncompromising environmental message, as story.
Falling Through the Clouds played at the Sydney Festival. Details here.