Ever since she was young and sufficiently troubled, Mary (Adriane Duff) has had recurring dreams in which she is flying. It’s the ultimate symbol of escape and liberation, and doubly fitting for Mary, who is obsessed with birds.
The Last Great Hunt, Perth’s experimental theatre outfit, has crafted a surprisingly delicate story around Mary, and flight, and birds, out of densely industrial and technological techniques. Young Mary is a sweetly shy puppet; older Mary’s disarmingly lo-fi flying, lying on her stomach on a box, is upturned when she is projected on a screen full of stars and sky. Her story is futuristic, but the most important props for the story are fragile, impermanent things, paper and balloons.
Socially and environmentally conscious, Mary is tasked with saving the birds, basically all of them, because we’ve ruined the planet as we inevitably will do, and all the birds have died. There are some throwaway lines that still manage to emphasise the destruction of the planet that comes with disrupting the ecological balance (can the world still thrive without birds?) but rather than linger on these themes, they stay in the background, a subtle framework for a little tale about a woman and her creatures.
This quietude only makes the issues more prominent and the stakes higher. Mary is tasked with nurturing two specific birds, a male and a female, from egg to breeding. She has a male assistant, who is sweet and hapless and lightly sexist (the progressive notions of an imperfect and vaguely unjust world are a great gentle backdrop of the whole piece).
Can birds bred to bring back more birds, the only two of its kind, ever really live, though? Or fly? And what does that say about Mary, a woman who wants nothing more than to be free from the worst of the world and the worst of herself, lost to the clouded skies and moon, flying for hours and at peace? What must be sacrificed to live a meaningful life, and what makes a life meaningful at all?
The birds are the most strikingly alive thing about the piece, constructed lovingly from paper and brought to joyous life by ensemble players. The shades of mischief in these birds immediately recall another Perth work that made its way to Sydney, the sweetly adapted Storm Boy.
There is so much technical precision (magic with fans and screens and sheets) though that at some point its cleverness in execution and innovation as stagecraft all blurs together into something that is far less than the sum of its parts. The work feels too small, stretched thin in its complicated, presumably heavily-teched framework; a series of shorts on the same topic, or structuring the story in two or three distinct vignettes, may have made it more dramatically compelling.
Still, it’s a lovely thing, these gorgeous paper birds, this woman who wants us all to fly, this idea that things are awful but there’s still somewhere. It’s perfect Festival fare.