For many Australians the seminal Australian classic Storm Boy was a key part of their childhood. The wild beauty and isolation of the Coorong, the wide-eyed innocence of Storm Boy, the depth of his friendship with the magnificent pelican that was Mr Percival and the raw grief that overwhelmed anyone with a heart when - spoiler alert - Mr Percival was ultimately killed. With its sweeping themes of friendship, race, grief, love and hope, Colin Thiele’s book is as relevant today as it was when it was released 50 years ago.
But how to realise all this on stage? And more importantly: how do you bring the majestic Mr Percival to life? Working on the production was award-winning designer Michael Scott-Mitchell and Barking Gecko artistic director John Sheedy, who quickly realised hyper-realism was out. They agreed instead that both set and props should have a natural feel, made from things found in the local environment such as grasses, reeds, and driftwood.
Just as quickly it occurred to them that puppetry would provide the best way to imbue Mr Percival and his animal world with the characteristics essential to the story’s success. Who better to call on than one of the industry’s most respected puppeteers: Peter Wilson. At the time Wilson was working in Melbourne on another puppet, only this one was on a different scale altogether and the star of one of Australia’s most ambitious theatrical creations to-date: King Kong.
And so began the creation of six puppet pelicans in various stages of life, from babies to adulthood. “When you think about a pelican what are the main features you focus on? The beak, the gullet, the neck, the feet, what the wings can do, the little frill at the back of the neck. They’re the things we focussed on in the design,” says Scott-Mitchell.
Abandoning the original idea of using grasses for wings, the pelicans are largely made of natural fibres, with wings of silk, giving a more feathery appearance. “We haven’t gone with fluffy white pelicans, we’ve created an impression,” says Wilson. Whilst there isn’t a photo realistic likeness, the endearing puppet birds are undoubtedly reminiscent of pelicans.
The puppets, which include a snake and a fairy penguin, were made by puppet company About Face in Melbourne, with Wilson overseeing their creation by skype or the occasional drop-in from the set of Kong. Rather than employ professional puppeteers, the puppets will be operated by two indigenous performers known as ‘the witnesses’: Anthony Mayor and Phil Dean Walford.
“The witnesses present to Storm Boy the animals from their environment, it’s not just puppeteers walking on with an animal,” says Scott-Mitchell, adding that their costumes will tie in with those of Storm Boy’s treasured Aboriginal mate Fingerbone Bill (Mabo’s Jimi Bani). The witnesses will also provide the ‘voices’ of the pelicans, a hybrid and very convincing honking-chirrup sound.
Creating the puppets was a labour of love. “The development of the puppets was deceptive in that you think you’ll just design them and then they’ll arrive. And that’s not the process, there’s a whole developmental phase,” says Scott-Mitchell. “Given the resources of the production we’ve tried to facilitate those steps as much as possible but we’re still learning how things need to operate.”
Realising Mr Percival was even more work. The ‘Rolls Royce model’, as Wilson fondly refers to him, the puppet’s head is fully articulated so it can move naturally, while its wingspan is larger and more complicated than his smaller counterparts.
The set itself is pared back and features a large plywood shape that evokes sand dunes, waves, even a whale skeleton. It curves across the stage, dominating yet sheltering, providing another element for the actors to climb upon. It also houses the doorway to the humpy where Storm Boy lives with Hideaway Tom (Julian Garner). Another key set piece is a ramshackle old wooden dinghy, which audiences may recognise from Belvoir’s memorable production of Cloudstreet.
“We’re not doing the film .. we needed to strip it back,” says Scott-Mitchell. “We don’t want to over-saturate it, just one or two crab nets and a bucket to tell the story.”
Aside from the challenges of realising the set and puppets within the time restrictions and touring constraints (there are weight restrictions) both Scott-Mitchell and Wilson agree they don’t feel weighed down by the pressure of interpreting an Aussie classic. “I haven’t felt any, not in terms of the history of the story and how wonderful it is in the hearts and minds of 15 million Australians,” Wilson says, without a hint of sarcasm. “You’re finding a way to interpret the story for the stage. [What’s important is] how you tell it best to hold onto the emotion and bring out the key relationships within that story.”
The Sydney Theatre Company and Barking Gecko Theatre Company production Storm Boy runs 25 April – May 17 at Wharf 1; before touring Wollongong and Canberra.