A Dutch children’s book originally published in 2004, The Book of Everything was adapted into a play by Australian Richard Tulloch for Company B in Sydney, and premiered in early January 2010 from whence it has been toured, and reimagined, around the world. Silo Theatre produced the NZ premiere for last year’s Auckland Arts Festival which did so well that it returns next week with four new cast members who are being quickly put through their paces.
‘Two weeks and production week,’ says Michelle Blundell, who returns as Eliza, the teenager with the leather leg and nine-year-old Thomas’s unlikely love interest, ‘so not much time, no.’ Fortunately, Amanda Billing, who will now be playing the mother, is used to doing things on the hop – notably having to reblock a fair bit of last year’s Lysistrata on the day of opening because a colleague had broken her foot – so I am sure it will be fine. Nevertheless, there has been a sense that everyone is a bit busy, a bit hot. ‘Sure, I can do the interview on the phone,’ I said. The publicist, one could sense, didn’t really want to call the production team up again.
‘It’s been so hot...’, says Michelle, ever upbeat. 'We’ve moved to Westpoint now. It’s really great - a bit more breezy.’
Two weeks to bring in four main characters, and get four more back in the saddle with all the different dynamics that the new actors will bring. ‘I hope it will tour,’ says Michelle, ‘It’s a lot of work to tour a production like this one.’ Certainly looking at the Silo publicity material, a tour is on the cards (around the North Island) - I wonder why she doubts it. It is quite a substantial show though, eight actors plus technical crew to pay and house, a large beautiful three-dimensional set from John that shifts and folds in on itself. Lighting, effects, props, period costumes to look after...
This was a project close to the heart of Silo artistic director Sophie Roberts, and she has put budget money where her heart is. And it has paid off: one of the best-received plays of 2015, it not only sold out but succeeded in appealing to a very wide range of ages – for ages ten to a hundred, they suggest – deepening Silo’s audience beyond its solid graduate to forty-something fanbase looking for quality theatre with an edge.
Well, The Book of Everything is not exactly edgy, but it is not a comfortable show either. Set in 1951 Amsterdam, nine-year-old Thomas Klopper lives with his loving mother, his bovine sister and strict religious father, Mr Klopper, who scares and silences them all, clopping his wife regularly behind closed doors. Thomas’s escape is his imagination: seeing tropical fish in the canals, and chewing the fat with Jesus. It also leads him to the house of the local witch, who feeds his love of stories and teaches him how to be brave. Magic and playfulness run throughout the production and offset the darkness and fear that pervades the Kloppers’ lives. Some nights the humour is irrepressible, on others you can hear people cry, and sometimes, perfectly, even both. It is a gorgeously theatrical show that offers a pathway out of the darkness for all involved. Blundell loves it.
Michelle Blundell has been a part of the Auckland theatre scene for a long time as an actor, children’s party fairy, even a stretch as programme manager for the Basement Theatre amongst all the other jobs performers have to do. She has been in and seen a lot of shows in her time. 'I have very high expectations when I go and see a show because I want to be moved and entertained.’ I ask her what makes a great show. ‘It relies on lots of factors coming together to be amazing and memorable.’ She thinks for a second, ‘But if it is not there in the script, it is very hard to fake it, to make something from nothing.’ They may not have much time, but they do have the material. She agrees. ‘I really enjoy this role.’ But returning with the same show is not without risk – the reviews have been rave: can it live up to last time? Can they find enough new audience members to come and watch it? It has worked for home-grown kiwi shows –Krishnan’s Dairy and more recently Daffodils, both also notable for simple sets and small casts, which have become part of the modern NZ repertoire. If it works for this show too, then it may indicate an appetite for larger scale NZ productions, and that has to be good news for theatre creators and audiences alike. Watch the show, and watch this space.
[cred: Olivia Jensen]