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Reaching for the sun: Masquerade at the Sydney Festival

Kate Mulvaney’s Masquerade is a joyous, poignant adaptation of Kit Williams’ book for children. AAP/Nikki Short

The opening night of Masquerade at the Sydney Opera House last Friday attracted a rather higher number of under-12s than might usually be expected for Australia’s theatre demographic – and it was a delightful change.

Through a vivacious collaboration of music, light, colour, costume and larger-than-life characters, Masquerade, currently playing at the Sydney Festival, interweaves a sombre reality with a beautiful and bizarre other world populated by fantastical creatures.

The play centres on Tessa (Helen Dallimore): a single mother trying to hold things together for her very sick son, Joe (Jack Andrew/Louis Fontaine), who is stuck in a hospital bed and hasn’t been outside for longer than he can remember. Then they come across a book and suddenly a new world unfolds:

Within the pages of this book there is a story told
Of love, adventures, fortunes lost, and a jewel of solid gold.
To solve the hidden riddle, you must use your eyes,
And find the hare in every picture that may point you to the prize …

Masquerade, written by Australian playwright Kate Mulvany and directed by Lee Lewis and Sam Strong, is based both on the book by Kit Williams and on Mulvany’s personal experience of the book, which she first read as a child in hospital.

Masquerade at the Sydney Opera House. AAP/Nikki Short

Tessa and Joe help the Moon

The world of the book centres on the lovesick Moon (Kate Cheel) - costumed as a celestial Marilyn Monroe - who longs from afar for the Sun (Mikelangelo). Desperate, she enlists Jack Hare (in a superb performance by Nathan O’Keefe) to deliver a riddle and a special amulet to the Sun as a token of her love.

The first half of the play traces Hare’s journey to reach the Sun and the various encounters he has along the way. When Jack manages to lose the precious amulet and mangle the riddle, Tessa and Joe decide to intervene: they enter the storyworld to find the amulet and make sure that the Moon’s message of love is delivered.

Joe and Tessa’s world is contained within a large revolving cube. This effective design by Anna Cordingley functions both as Joe’s hospital room and – when curtained – a means of projecting or silhouetting various images during the play’s journey across earth, air, water and fire. The entire stage is framed by letters, which light up at various points. This would be more effective for those further back; in C-row and above you need to look harder to take it all in.

Strong performances

Masquerade is the result of excellent collaborative work from all facets of this production. O’Keefe’s Jack Hare is the production’s glue: he is relentlessly energetic, hilarious and endearing. His verbal and physical agility were to me reminiscent of a Danny Kaye-style (perhaps one of his most crowd-pleasing moments was Jack’s recurring inability to pronounce that tricky L-word).

Helen Dallimore’s Tessa grounds the production with a smart, empathetic and authentic performance in the midst of the play’s flamboyant theatricality.

The production is peopled with a range of hilarious and bizarre characters, all colourfully costumed: Tara Treetops (complete with hat-riding crow), the rather nasty Penny Pockets, a yoga-doing Dawn, a friendly Fish and a fat dancing Pig. Cheel doubles as the Moon and Tara, while the entertaining Zindzi Okenyo effortlessly plays the rest of these characters in what amounts to a lot of costume changing.

Joe (played on opening night by Jack Andrew) was calm and strong throughout, and stood out in his performance of the “I dream of outside” song:

I dream of outside.
Slippery wet grass that cuts at my feet,
Splinters in fingers and scabs on my knees,
Chasing fat beetles, getting stung by a bee.
I dream of outside.

Music makes the world go round

The writing is clear and simple but also has sweetness and depth. Often the songs are more sad than funny (“I dream of outside” and “I feel I’m invisible” especially), but Mulvany as playwright and directors Lewis and Strong never let the production slip into sentimentality: Joe’s song here is perforated by Jack’s lusting after carrots.

Masquerade at the Sydney Opera House. AAP/Nikki Short

The play is rounded out with music by Mikelangelo and the Black Sea Gentlemen (Pip Branson, Guy Freer, Sam Martin, Phil Moriarty). The musicians are onstage and take several parts including two of the play’s most fascinating characters: The Man Who Plays the Music That Makes the World Go Round and Sir Isaac Newton (Branson).

By casting the musicians, Masquerade explicitly brings the music into the narrative: indeed, music is what “makes the world go round”. The use of music to explain death was a particularly effective metaphor. Jack Hare explains to Joe and Tessa that sometimes the music has to stop because: “Part of making the world go round is allowing some people to get off now and then.” The Man Who Plays the Music That Makes the World Go Round adds:

But of all these years doing it, the world always starts to turn again when I play once more. Some of the remaining mortals become a little slower, a little sadder – for them the world still feels like it’s stopped still – but they soon hear the music I play and pick up the pace once again.

Used for humour, narrative development and as a key metaphor, the music of Masquerade gives this production much of its vitality as well as a bittersweet flavour.

Along with the music, lighting designer Geoff Cobham transforms the stage: we move from the ivory pale light of the moon to the burning heat of the sun, and the bubble-filled world of the ocean floor to the warming light of the dawn. Whenever Jack Hare opens his bag to reveal the precious amulet within, the stage is filled by the rainbow glow of the unseen: a stunning effect.

Masquerade balances that fine line between comedy and sadness, light and dark, fairytale and reality. Even if you are unfamiliar with the book (as I was), the images and characters quickly seem like old friends, and the play draws on core images and tropes: the moon and the sun, the four elements, mother and son, playtime and loss.

The intersection of Tessa and Joe’s hospital world with the fantastical world of Masquerade is increasingly complex as the play progresses. It was really after the interval that the audience got involved in the journey, with several rounds of spontaneous applause and a lot of laughter.

The world of the book becomes not so much an escape (although it certainly is that too) as a way of re-seeing that scary and all-too-real world of chemo and needles. The play doesn’t shy from the pain and sadness but reminds us that there’s so much more.

Masquerade plays at the Sydney Festival until January 17. Details here.

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