Duck, Death and the Tulip

Cahoots NI present 'Duck, Death and the Tulip'.

Cahoots NI present 'Duck, Death and the Tulip'.

Cahoots NI present 'Duck, Death and the Tulip'.

Cahoots NI present 'Duck, Death and the Tulip'.

Cahoots NI present 'Duck, Death and the Tulip'.

Cahoots NI present 'Duck, Death and the Tulip'.

Sometimes, theatre is there to help us see things which are difficult to say to one another. That's especially true of children's theatre, where the inadvisability of overloading scripts semantically forces an inventive approach to alternative methods of communication.

That's precisely the area in which Cahoots NI's new staging of German author Wolf Erlbruch's illustrated children's story Duck, Death and the Tulip is particularly impressive. Its mix of song, dance, mime, spoken narrative, graphic projections, special effects and illusions is an entrancing amalgam of ingredients, seamlessly integrated into a single forty-minute span of bewitching live theatre.

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That's quite an achievement, given the sensitive nature of the subject-matter. Death is never easy to talk about, and children have, of course, the infallible knack of asking the darnedest questions. In Erlbruch's book, and the Cahoots adaptation of it, Duck lives happily by an idyllic lake, revelling in the beauties of the natural world, until one day Death approaches.

Duck is played by Dublin-based, Swedish-trained dancer Maria Nilsson Waller. It's a non-speaking part, and Waller's ballet training gives her a wide variety of shapes and gestures to draw on, in her portrayal of Duck's carefree interaction with the water-world around her. Waller moves with elegance and expressivity, emerging sinuously from a tin bath representing the lake Duck lives on. Her facial features, carefully etched and calibrated, effectively communicate the wide-eyed, artless innocence of a creature entirely at ease in its natural environment.

Francis Morgan's set enhances the impression of a lakeside idyll, its semi-abstract swirls of clouds or foliage creating an arch around a moon-like central sphere, upon which charming images from Erlbruch's book are intermittently projected. Director Paul Bosco McEneaney also uses this giant peephole for Death's dramatic entry as a creepily silhouetted apparition, the iconography of Bergman's The Seventh Seal an evident visual influence.

McEneaney's Death is, however, markedly more benign than Bergman's. White-faced, shaven-headed, Robert Jackson plays the Grim Reaper as a gently smiling, almost apologetic figure – an uncomplaining pawn in the ineluctable sequence of birth, decay and death re-enacted constantly in Nature, and mysteriously unfathomable. He and Duck evolve a sympathetic understanding, a friendship even, which reaches its apogee in the closing scenario, where Death lays Duck softly to rest, dropping a single tulip on the water's surface in benediction. It's a moving moment, and not just for the schoolchildren present.

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Sitting stage-left is Time, whose commentary links the wordless interaction of Duck and Death, filling out the details of their story. Hugh Brown's narration is a model of soft-spoken clarity and sensitivity, absorbingly delivered in a way which neutralises the potential anxieties inherent in the play's explicit treatment of mortality. Brown's mesmerisingly tender way of manipulating the props in front of him has the same becalming influence. There are sad, serious things about to happen, he seems to be intimating, but you have no need to be afraid of them. As he shifts the tiny wooden duck emblematically placed in front of him to a variety of locations, you feel his empathy, and accept the inevitability of what must happen to Duck eventually.

The atmosphere at the play's conclusion is remarkably similar to that created by Leoš Janáček in his great opera The Cunning Little Vixen, where the vixen dies, but Janáček's music teems with the freshness and vigour of the new life that Nature will inevitably replace her with. "Nothing ever ends," as Time puts it in Duck, Death and the Tulip. "It all begins again." As flowers sprout magically from the miniature tree on Time's table, and above the rim of Duck's bath and burial place, it's impossible, for the moment at least, not to believe it, or at the very least to want to believe it.

High production values help to further strengthen the impact of this beguilingly affecting fable. Garth McConaghie's soundtrack provides some lovely songs for Brown to sing, and lots of ambient sound effects requiring careful co-ordination with the actors, Waller's Duck in particular. Technically this is all faultlessly executed, as are the special effects, including a wriggling goldfish which suddenly appears out of nowhere, as if by magic.

As a piece of theatre for young children (it's aimed at age four and above) Duck, Death and the Tulip is practically unimprovable. It's a beautifully told story, has the kind of magical immediacy only live theatre can offer, and raises issues of genuine importance in a manner which teachers will find easy to follow up on afterwards.

Is it merely ‘children's theatre’? That I'm not so sure of. Personally I'd say Death, Duck and the Tulip is one of the cleverest, most sensitively realised new plays I've seen so far in 2013, period.

Terry Blain is an arts journalist and cultural commentator, contributing regularly to BBC Music Magazine, Opera Britannia, Culture Northern Ireland and other publications.

  • Review
  • Theatre

Duck, Death and the Tulip by Cahoots NI, from a story by Wolf Erlbruch

15 Oct - 2 Nov, 2013

Produced by Cahoots NI
In the Lyric Theatre, Belfast

Directed by Paul Bosco McEneaney

Choreography: Muirne Bloomer

Composer: Garth McConaghie

Set Design: Francis Morgan

Lighting Design: Malcolm Smith

Costume Design: Gemma Porter

Special Effects: Paul McEneaney, Paul Gomac, Xavier Tapias

Digital Media: BNL Productions

With: Maria Nilsson Waller, Robert Jackson, Hugh Brown

Age 4+