By Joanna Delalande
In Paris, early 1990s, desperate for something English to read, Happy Dagger Theatre artistic director Andrew Hale stumbled upon The Cockatoos, a collection of six novels by Australian author Patrick White bearing the country’s first Nobel Prize for literature.
Hale immediately wanted to take The Cockatoos to the stage. After 25 years, the short story had been transformed into a theatre production for the first time which will premier at the Blue Room Theatre on October 22nd.
Hale opened up and said the story resonated with him in ways he could not understand at first,“There were things in the story that I didn’t notice, that skimmed by me, and that I didn’t get until the third, fourth, fifth read, and there were other things that I put into the story that weren’t there, and that I didn’t realize weren’t there until the fortieth, fiftieth, sixtieth read. The story has really stayed with me. It’s a magical story in a way, but magical with no tricks. Everything stays brutally human and honest, and it certainly won’t give you a happy ending for happy ending’s sake.”
The Cockatoos tells the story of married couple Mick and Olive, who have not spoken a word to each other in seven years, and their slow reconciliation after a flock of wild Cockatoos visit their neighborhood. In conjunction; is the story of eight-year-old Tim; who decides to test his courage by spending a whole night in the park alone. The two stories weave together, a ‘spastic sarabande’ of fear and desire”.
After the first preview and members night; on October 20th and 21st, The Cockatoos will showcase on October 22nd till November 7th.
The cast of six includes Anna Brockway, Andrew Hale, Kingsley Judd, Janet Pettigrew, Nichola Renton, and James Sollis; there is no eight-year-old boy to play Tim.
“Everybody plays Tim,” Hale explains. “Part of the idea of Tim as an eight year old boy is because he’s so young, he’s not yet quite formed as a human being yet. The whole story is about his process and what he goes through, and what that night in the park does to him; to turn him into an individual human being. So the idea of having him played by an individual before we even start; kind of defeated the purpose”.
“That section’s a bit out there theatrically, I think. I haven’t seen it done before. We’ve been told by people it was not going to work, which makes me go, ‘Well, that means if it did work it would be really cool’.”
Hale noted the play is quite true to the book, but that he was conscious of finding a balance between making too many changes and reciting entire sections of the book out loud. “We’ve stayed very faithful to it,” he says. “So much so that the actors keep going back to the story and saying, ‘What about this bit?’ And I’m like ‘Ah, we’re doing the play, not the book’.”
The production crew includes composer Ash Gibson-Greig on music, WAPPA dance lecturer, award-winning dancer Claudia Alessi on choreography, and Jenny Poh as stage manager. “Which has just been glorious,” Hale says. “Big props to Jenny Poh!”
But although everyone has their role, Hale says he aimed for an ensemble method for this show. He says where the Australian theatre has distinct demarcations —the designer does the design, the actors do the acting and people seem to get their toes trod on if things are suggested outside of their area of work— they have decided everybody should be doing what’s best for the show.
“We want the best show,” he says. “So that means the best idea can come from the stage manager, the best idea for design can come from one of the performers, and the designer might have an idea of something to cut in the script, something that’s slowing it down. I think performers especially are hired too often as contractors. So they’re liable to do the job very well that they’re asked to do but they don’t have enough investment in the final product. It’s not new, by any means, an ensemble method. But I think it’s unusual, certainly with people of this caliber.”
Hale seemed to be very excited to see the show was going to being performed after all these years. “It really fills up my dream world, I dream about it in weird, strange, wonderful ways almost every night, but I’m not scared about it. I’m really looking forward to it. Which makes me go; What are you missing, what have you not seen? What’s the massive problem?’”
Whatever problems he faces, Hale will no doubt find a way around them. He explains that since the play was set to be performed at the Blue Room, a switch flipped in his mind that made him determine to overcome any obstacle. The Cockatoos would see the stage, there was no longer any question about it.
“There was a moment early on where people had said they were available and they were willing to do it, but life got in their way and they turned around and they said they couldn’t. And I thought, ‘Well, it doesn’t matter’. If everybody said they couldn’t do it, it’d be a one-person show and I’d play all six characters, and I’d still make it as good as I possibly could. There was nothing that was going to stop it,” he said.
When asked Hale explained the main challenge he came across was trying to make fully professional show working with fully professional people around their schedules, and getting them to generously donate their time, talents, and best efforts. Another, in the adaptation of the story, was weaving the two stories together. “And… that’s it!” he says *pausing*.
“There’s been other challenges; one actor broke their toe and was wobbling around. But that all fits in, you know. It’s the amazing thing about theatre; you will always do the play. Sometimes you’ll do the play offstage, as the dynamic between the actors rehearsing in the room and all the dramas offstage, and that can lead to sometimes a very flat production onstage. Or it can feed into it. I hope people just give it a go,” Hale says finally about the show. “I hope people come see it. I think it’s going to be worth seeing. I’m usually really honest about these things. I feel really good about it, and I feel like it’s going to be something that’s going to be worth watching.”
photo credit: Jon Green