Must-see Melville

Ishmael (Dead Puppet Society)

QPAC, Cremorne Theatre

September 3 – 18

Dead Puppet Society is an Australian theatre company highly regarded for its creation of puppet-based visual-theatre works of spectacle and wonder. Its shows have always been inventive so audiences shouldn’t be surprised at the evolving enterprise that is realised in its latest production, “Ishmael”. This time rather than animals, the puppetry comes courtesy of dozens of intricate models and dioramas, which are projected in rotation on a massive scale through a live feed video as creative geniuses David Morton (Director and Designer) and Nicholas Paine (Creative Producer) take audiences into a whole new world of storytelling … literally.

As its name implies, “Ishmael” is based upon Herman Melville’s classic “Moby Dick” story of Captain Ahab’s pursuit of revenge against a giant whale. Rather than an obsessive quest across the ocean, however, this story’s voyage is of a climate refugee in the outer solar system. The year is 3022 and the earth as we know it is dead, having suffered a catastrophic environmental collapse. The surface of the planet is smothered in a layer of clouds, all except for the tops of the tallest mountains which are controlled by a wealthy corporate class.

Ishmael (Ellen Bailey) is a freedom fighter refugee from life in a corporation-sanctioned camp below the cloud. “Call me Ishmael” she iconically states when introducing herself to a pilot testing officer (Veteran Brisbane actor Barb Lowing) at the play’s outset. Though she may have come from the latest uprising, as specialised labour Ishmael says she is ready to work for the corporation. Eager to disappear and clearly on edge, she is not much for courtesy, ready to pull a gun out at the slightest even hint of potential provocation, meaning that clearly, her escape is from more than just climate destruction.

More cagey than enigmatic, however, the character doesn’t provide us much in terms of backstory, making it difficult to become invested in her journey, meaning that when motivations are eventually revealed late in the work, they come almost as surprises rather than justifications. Still, Ellen Bailey she does a good job in bringing the protagonist’s emotions to life with a committed physicality that animates her every reaction.

Patrick Jhanur, meanwhile calms things with a steady presence as the 900+ year old android Queequeg; his simple humanity sees many audience members obviously invested in his relationship with Ishmael, judging by the audible reactions at its key junctures. And Lowing transitions between multiple additional roles with ease, including most notably as the Captain Ahab who hires Ishmael for a mission to avenge her brother’s death.  

As worthy as the performances are, however, the most impressive aspect of “Ishmael” is its audio visual engagement. What begins with the calming HAL 9000-like artificial intelligence system aboard the spaceship MV Pequod, soon cresendos towards a truly dynamic soundscape (Sound Design and Music Supervisor Tony Brumpton), including original music soundtrack by indie pop musician Bec Sandridge. It is just unfortunate that sometimes in its wind around the audience, it sometimes operates in competition with the dialogue of high action moments.

Cameras stream intricate miniature models live to the big screen that serves as the stage’s backdrop, elevating the story in epicness, with the puppetry occurring just offstage and being projected on to the screen. And the operation of models by the non-performing actors (with technician assistance) at the side of the stage adds interest along with transparency as to the process.

Stunning visual projections (Projection Designer Justin Harrison) also sweep us into the story’s intergalactic setting, especially as backdrop to the big battle moments of the crew’s perilous voyage to the outer solar system’s sections. And when the three characters make their way out in individual crafts to mine asteroids, the result is sci-fi action of the sort you would never usually expect to see on stage.

Science fiction is so rarely seen in our theatres so for this alone this futuristic reimagining should be celebrated. Not only is the ground-breaking theatrical experience visually spectacular in its futuristic version of earth and its universe, but it carries with it an ultimately uplifting message about reaching for the stars, which, in combination, makes it a must-see Brisbane festival show.

Photos c/o – Dean Hanson

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