Duck, Death and the Tulip
Cahoots NI adapt Wolf Erlbruch's book aimed at changing young peoples' perception of death
It is one of the most profound, sensitive and fundamental of human needs: the need to come to terms with death. When it is a child who has been bereaved, the necessity to explain, to comfort, to give hope and understanding becomes even more vital. But through a child's eyes, the most complex issue can suddenly emerge clear, simple and free of conflicting theories, religious or spiritual dogma or truisms.
The German author and illustrator Wolf Erlbruch takes on this profound subject in his internationally acclaimed picture book for young children, entitled Duck, Death and the Tulip. Here, death is personified and transformed from a sinister, malicious force into a tender, caring playmate for a innocent, not very bright duck.
First published in Germany in 2007, six years later this inspiring little volume has found its way into the searching imagination and theatrical daring of Paul McEneaney, whose company Cahoots NI has crafted a deeply satisfying stage adaptation, which could find a place in human consciousness the world over.
Before a sound is heard, the visual impact of Frankie Morgan's spectacular set, Gemma Porter's gorgeous costumes and Malcolm Smith's vibrant yet subtle lighting design, is breathtaking. The space is dominated by a huge, gilded conch, encrusted with unicorn horns and snail shells. Over the course of the next 45 minutes, it will function both as a luminous screen for silhouetted images and a vantage point from which Duck and Death will view the world.
Front of stage, a tiny replica universe is presided over by Hugh Brown's Narrator. From behind a delicately-played set of drums and cymbals, Brown's mellifluous voice floats over proceedings, providing a lyrical commentary while constructing a miniature version of the unfolding tale. As he carefully places a small yellow plastic duck on the edge of a mini-pond, the lights go up on Maria Nilsson Waller's gangly, sweet-faced Duck, emerging from an old-fashioned bath.
Drawing on the disciplined classical technique acquired at the Royal Swedish Ballet School and Salzburg Experimental Academy of Dance, Waller stretches and loosens her body, shakes the water from her feathers, splashing with delight and beaming at the flora and fauna surrounding her.
She is a happy creature, cosy and safe amongst the reeds, playing hide and seek with the birds and butterflies, chasing after dragonflies and fishing for her lunch with a rod taken from her little picnic hamper. As the year turns, she contentedly lives out the seasons, basking in the balmy summer sun and shivering in the snows of winter as her watery home freezes over.
But nature is relentless in its cycle and life has a habit of turning very suddenly into death. One day, Duck receives an unexpected visitor, prompting the Narrator to observe sagely that there is more to life than meets the eye. Startled, Duck asks two very pertinent questions and receives an equally unqualified answer. Who are you? Why are you creeping along behind me?' 'Good. You’ve finally noticed me. I am Death.' As Erlbruch observes, Duck is scared stiff. You could hardly blame her for that.
Australian Robert Jackson is also a classically trained dancer. As Death, he is no grim reaper. He makes a dramatic entrance, his contorted, bony presence appearing out of nowhere behind the rose-coloured screen in the centre of the conch. Mysterious yet not quite threatening, stealthy yet not predatory, when he steps into Duck's vision he morphs into a gaunt, kind-faced figure wearing a rather elegant checked greatcoat.
Under Muirna Bloomer's expressive choreography and to the strains of Garth McConaghie's beautiful score, he and Duck join hands for a tender danse macabre, a prelude to the moment when he will escort her gently to the other side.
There is total, rapt silence in the auditorium as the end inevitably approaches. Death leads Duck high up into a tree to look down on her pond, which will be gone forever once she leaves it. He proffers some silly notions about angels sitting on clouds and a place deep in the earth, where you can be roasted if you haven't been good. Death's ideas are starting to make Duck uneasy. She pleads with him to climb down again, as one can start having strange thoughts in trees.
This thoughtful, life-affirming piece leaves scarcely a dry adult eye in the house. Meanwhile, the children in the audience watch in wonder as flowers start to bloom, the sun comes out and Duck's thudding heartbeat slows to a stop. Death carries her down to the eternally rolling river, places a red tulip on her breast and watches over her as she drifts peacefully away. The next phase of her journey has begun. That's death. That's life.