The Rabbits – Opera Australia/Barking Gecko Theatre Company/ Sydney Festival
Roslyn Packer Theatre, Walsh Bay,
14 January, 2016
With four Helpmann Awards under its belt and successful seasons at the Perth International Arts Festival in February 2015 and the Melbourne Festival a few months later, The Rabbits had already established its credentials before its opening in Sydney last week.
Based on the book written by John Marsden with illustrations by Shaun Tan, the music is composed by Kate Miller-Heidke with arrangements and additional music by Iain Grandage and libretto by Lally Katz.
The Rabbits is an hour- long allegorical musical drama which, despite its seeming simplicity, contains layers of complexity. It potently provokes consideration of some of the major issues that confront Australia in the 21st century – man’s impact on the environment, the colonisation of Australia by European settlers, industrialisation and the loss of indigenous culture, the Stolen Generation and an overriding sense of a loss of innocence.
The music of The Rabbits is accessible and appealing. Its songs, as stand-alone numbers, are very likely to enter the popular canon. It’s not all saccharine-sweet singing and dancing. The narrative doesn’t desist from frankly sad and uncomfortable sentiments.
To quibble about its genre is to miss the point of this piece. The Rabbits is a melting pot of genres. The singers, whose voices are amplified come from a variety of backgrounds from opera to jazz and music theatre. They are accompanied by a 5 piece band which includes a piano accordion, violin and electronics, sans conductor; it is sung in English with diction so clear that sur-titles are hardly necessary.
The characters are powerfully drawn and portrayed – the five invading rabbits are operatically trained men, representing various branches of Western society that run counter to nature. Robert Mitchell as The Captain leads this ensemble comprising Christopher Hillier as A Convict, Nicholas Jones as A Society Rabbit, Simon Meadows as A Lieutenant and Kanen Breen as A Scientist who reveals a whole new tessitura to his voice. The five indigenous Marsupials are played with tremendous sensitivity by Hollie Andrew, Jessica Hitchcock, Lisa Maza, Marcus Corowa and David Leha. The earthy beauty of their voices is a stark contrast to the stylised tones of the invaders.
Centre stage, rising from deep within the red earth in a riot of rumpled feathers, is the surreal and omniscient Bird, played by Miller-Heidke herself. From her perch atop the mound, she is able to see all. Her sung narrative is interspersed with passages of bird calls as she uses her extraordinary voice to great instrumental effect.
Gabriela Tylesova’s costumes are ingenious, the sets are simple yet effective. The lighting design complements the mood on stage; extensive programme notes and comments from the creative team allow a more detailed study of how The Rabbits came to be.
The mix of amplified voices was variable in balance with the operatic voices dominating at times; there were also moments of overamplification which blurred the clarity of the music.
There has been considerable debate about the relevance and lasting value of contemporary Australian musical dramas and their ability to draw audiences. The Rabbits is one work that dispels these concerns. It is likely to become an iconic work that not only entertains but makes critical statements about Australia’s history – beguiling and thought-provoking.
The Rabbits runs at the Roslyn Packer Theatre, Walsh Bay until January 24, 2016.
Shamistha de Soysa for SoundsLikeSydney©