Review: Owls Do Cry – a complex and arrestingly poetic performance

Naomi van den Broek reviews Red Leap Theatre‘s touring production of Owls Do Cry at The Gym, The Arts Centre Te Matatiki Toi Ora, Thursday 8 April, 2021.

I attend this lunchtime performance of Owls Do Cry knowing very little about the source material, New Zealand author Janet Frame’s lauded 1957 novel, and just a little of Auckland-based company Red Leap Theatre’s reputation for creative theatre making. It is an absolute treat: an exceptional production that puts high faith in both its company and the audience. It’s really refreshing to see work such as this – creative, collaborative, challenging, experiential – being performed in Ōtautahi, and I so wish there were more of this type of performance art being made and played here.

Owls Do Cry explores belonging and isolation, being invisible or seen, what a family both gives and takes from its members, and who and what is valuable and how that is decided. A sense of underlying tragedy and tension is present throughout, even in comedic moments. The programme notes that the production is not a “literal adaptation of the novel”, a poetic work that recounts the (mis)fortunes of the four young Withers family siblings, whose lives are upended by poverty, illness and tragedy in small-town, mid-century New Zealand. Instead, the company has sought to “reach for what was out of grasp: the poetry, the complexity, the sublime humanity and the visceral life of this work”. This comes through effortlessly in the piece. The creative team (performers, directors, designers and production staff) are credited with devising everything in collaboration, and this is what I believe makes the finished product so beautifully complete and unique. The production feels like it has been made from the centre, from something elemental and crucial, then spiraled outwards so that every detail is considered, essential, and authentically integrated into a whole that is so much greater than the sum of its parts. 

While this is a touring production, it could have been made specifically for The Gym as a performance space, and I’m so pleased I am to see it here rather than in a black box. This terribly under-utilised space is really special, and to see a group using it so innovatively was a joy. Creating a piece such as this requires budget – especially when touring – and the grants this company have received from Creative NZ and regional funding bodies could not have been put to better use. The clever use of minimal but effective props, set pieces (wonderful use of road cases, bravo!), and costuming are noteworthy. However, the lighting and sound design deserve special ovation: lighting designer, Rachel Marlow, and sound designer, Eden Mulholland, have created a world for the performers to play in that is magical, evocative, and moving. So many images and sounds have remained with me since yesterday’s performance, and seldom have I seen a work where the lighting and sound feel so much like cast members themselves. The word holistic comes to mind over and over.  

The performers frequently break the fourth wall in an invitational and gentle way, drawing the audience into the world of the play. The performance begins with Arlo Gibson, who later plays son Toby, handing out copies of the novel Owls Do Cry to the audience. He then invites us to use them to create sound effects for the opening scene: heartbeats, rain, a storm. The copies of the book remain a central motif of the work, and are used by the players in a multitude of arresting ways throughout. 

The players’ performances encompass movement, dance, singing, and music-making, all of which are interwoven seamlessly throughout the hour-long performance. They each bring great humanity to their roles, with standout moments from everyone. Duet work from Ross McCormack and Margaret Mary Hollins, as father Bob and mother Amy, is achingly intimate, spare but with a sense of danger lurking beneath the surface. McCormack’s kiwi bloke character is on the nose and perfectly delivered, providing delightful comedic notes. Hollins, in her role as matriarch, manages beautifully the pathos of being eviscerated by the needs of her family. 

The Withers’ children, Daphne (Comfrey Sanders), Chicks (Katrina George), Toby (Gibson) and Francie (Hannah Lynch), are played with maturity and depth. One of the most striking moments of the play comes as Sanders delivers a monologue while being refracted, split and deified by an exceptional piece of lighting; the effect is absolutely gripping. Gibson’s physicality and ability to shape shift from vulnerability to cock-suredness in split seconds is remarkable. Lynch’s performance is likewise outstanding. A powerful singer with musical depth, Lynch is also confronting, tender and unguarded in her spoken work, and a kinetic force physically; it feels as if the entire piece turns on her character. George, who has offered a supporting role throughout, comes to the fore at the end of the show with a haunting call for belonging and recognition.  

One of the things I enjoy most about this production is the level of trust it has in its audience. At no point does the work feel insular, academic or exclusive; rather it invites the audience to share and encounter the world that is being created, with the message clearly communicated that the audiences’ individual experiences are valuable and valid. If this season weren’t already sold out, this is something I would want to experience again; a beautiful, generous and diligently crafted piece that invited me into Frame’s world, and left me feeling both replete and somehow wanting more. 

This Christchurch season runs from Wednesday 7 – Friday 9 April, 2021. This review was unsolicited.

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