First published as a short story in The Saturday Evening Post in 1940, Paul Gallico’s The Snow Goose evolved into a novella in 1941, was acknowledged as having a strong influenced on War Horse, and was transformed into a play by the Contagious Theatre creative team in 2013. After it's 2014 Cape Town premiere, the adaptation of this classic again returns to a local stage at The Fugard Theatre from 9 April to 4 May 2019.
It’s more than simply ‘a story of Dunkirk’, as it is also referenced. It's a heartfelt tale of kindness set against the backdrop of the horrors of war. It sees a solitary hunchbacked artist, Philip Rhayader, who lives in an abandoned lighthouse in the marshlands of Essex, develop a friendship with a young girl called Frith when she brings him a wounded snow goose and they nurse the displaced goose back to health. With strong symbolism, the snow goose returns to them on its yearly migration, until life is disrupted by the war and its impact forever alters their reality.
Although set in a specific historic context, the story and its sentiment still appeal to audiences years after the first publication. Taryn Bennett (who plays Frith) explains that The Snow Goose’s timelessness is informed by the fact that it’s a story of courage: ‘This is told through numerous characters, some brave, open-minded and curious, others brimming with cowardice, prejudice and fear.' As the tale unfolds it challenges those experiencing its narrative magic to contemplate what it means to be truly courageous.
Director, Jenine Collocott adds that The Snow Goose as a timeless tale of bravery is informed by love and friendship. James Cairns (who plays Rhayader) further unpacks these emotive elements, explaining that the story does not only explore the theme of friendship, but in fact looks at it from the perspective of the unlikely friendship between Rhayader and Frith. Cairns holds that that, along with how Rhayader selflessly gives his life to save others, 'makes the story a sentimental (in the best possible way) powerhouse’.
‘We did modernise it a bit in our adaptation,’ Collocott continues. ‘So, whilst it’s still a period piece we tried to make it more relevant to a modern audience. It was super fun and challenging to try work out how to do that without losing the essence of the work.’
That level of respect for the essence of a story is key to any successful adaption, and successful this Contagious Theatre production has certainly been, drawing audiences for the last six years and its theatrical impact being acknowledged with 2015 Fleur du Cap (Best Design and Best Props) and 2016 Naledi (Best Play, Best Ensemble, Best Director) nominations.
The creative team has been on this theatre journey since 2013 when Simon and Helen Cooper approached them with the request of developing a stage adaptation of Gallico’s tale. Cairns admits that at that time, the story of The Snow Goose was unknown to him:
‘I hadn’t read it. It was an obscure, dusty story from a distant past that seemed to be a bit dull. I did an adaptation of the novella into a stage script, but we threw out most of that and Jenine got the characters to tell the story their way. That’s how we arrived at our particular version of the story.’
Collocott reminisces that the adaptation process was an unconventional, adventurous one. ‘My fondest memory of our adaptation process was me following James and Taryn through the bushes next to our rehearsal venue in an improvisation with the two hunters,’ shares Collocott. ‘It was this improvisation that gave birth to the two crazy hunters as we know them.’
Between the story development and improvisation, Bennett tells that the adaptation process forced her to step out of her comfort zone with song, as she remembers being both nervous (at the thought of singing) and excited in the moment when they found the perfect song as representation of the relationship between Frith and Rhayader.
Along with the strong storytelling and music as symbolism in this acclaimed adaptation of The Snow Goose, what gives the play great expressionism appeal is the puppetry.
Cairns agrees that the power of the puppetry lies in the fact that it aids in conveying emotion. ‘Puppetry and mask-play are both great drivers of sentiment,’ he explains. ‘They have the uncanny ability to make an audience feel "more" than they would otherwise… When feeling is what you’re trying to evoke as a theatre maker then any tool that increases that ability is one you want to put into use.'
‘I think it brings in a visual landscape that would otherwise be missing,’ adds Collocott. ‘It allows the audience to really see the little boats sailing off to Dunkirk for example. Also, the play is called The Snow Goose and without puppetry somehow the goose would be missing.’
Cairns’ emotive and Collocott’s visual understanding of the puppetry-appeal comes together in what Bennett regards as the ability of puppetry to allow ‘the story to exist in the audience’s minds’. Puppetry vividly triggers a certain fascination. ‘Imagination is a powerful tool that evokes a much richer, deeper experience within the audience,’ Bennett elaborates. ‘They bring themselves to the story, are active in the experience, and often have a much more profound connection with the story.'
Complementing the puppetry driven imagery is the ingenious design by Collocott. She shares that the play’s design aesthetic, much like it’s narrative adaptation, was strongly influenced by the two hunters in the tale: ‘I just knew they had to be masked. I also knew that the masks had to be almost cartoon like —this way they could be as bigoted as they are and hopefully it would be funny rather than too heavy. I think we managed to achieve that.’
As for the two main characters, Rhayader and Frith, Collocott shares that the initial intention was to keep them both unmasked. But, as the played developed, it became clear that Rhayader too needed to be masked, though not in a similarly cartoon like fashion. ‘He needed much more humanity than that and so he ended up with a mask I actually made whilst studying mask in Italy,’ reveals Collocott. With two different types of masks already in the mix, Collocott was drawn to the idea of incorporating a third style that found expression as the military men ‘with masks that had even less architecture to them … [which] speaks to faces been blown away during war’.
There is then great symbolism in the fact that the virtuous Frith is the only unmasked character. This Collocott explains is ‘a technique used in Commedia Dell’Arte where the lovers, who represent the innocent, remain unmasked’.
Hearing how much thought Collocott puts into the type and meaning of the masks she links to a character, it's then to be expected that her design approach strongly influences her style of directing too:
‘Making theatre is a very visceral process for me, rather than a cerebral one. Of course I do apply critical thinking, but only later on in the rehearsal process. I will very easily throw out script and ask actors to improvise around a thought in order to arrive at what will be the final performance script. I think my design style supports that. I’m constantly interested in how we feel and what is required rhythmically rather than what is required narratively. For me if I look after the rhythm the narrative looks after itself.’
Taking such a rhythm and feel approach to directing matches the fact that, as Bennett explains, ‘mask-work demands an aspect of “play” from the actors’. She shares that ‘in order for the mask to become alive, there are technical rules that you have to abide by; the focus is completely on the external performance aspect, the physical and vocal’. ‘James and I are constantly seeking the new, the fresh, and a playful interaction with each other and the audience,’ says Bennett. This Cairns finds to be empowering as mask-performing is ‘quintessentially theatrical’ and in no way comparative to anything like a movie or a book.
Switching between masks (or even between the presence and absence of masks) helps Bennett and Cairns communicate the sentiment of their character to the audience. Through their character-revelations they can then show especially Frith and Rhayader to be inquisitive and open-minded. For Bennett, this is done by allowing the audience to follow the story through the eyes of Frith as the protagonist: ‘At the beginning of the story she's a young child and by the end of the show she's a young woman. She’s not one dimensional; it’s a fun, cheeky character to play.’
Cairns matches Bennett’s insightful understanding of Frith with his equally thoughtful interpretation of Rhayader as ‘the one who changes the most —his relationships with the goose and with Frith opens his life up in the most fundamental way and that process of change is sometimes quite delightful to inhabit’.
With Frith and Rhayadar allowing character development and exploration with such depth, Bennett hopes that audiences walk away having felt a connection with them, both as the actors and as the characters.
‘Obviously everyone has a slightly different takeaway from a piece of theatre,’ Cairns adds. For him there’s a level of understanding that he hopes resonates with audiences through the The Snow Goose experience. ‘The [takeaway] that’s been hitting home recently for me is the following: They say that hurt people hurt, meaning that those who have been given a hard time by others pass on the favour as it were. The Snow Goose says otherwise. Those who have been given every opportunity to become absolute sociopaths can live lives of great generosity and kindness.’
Ultimately, Collocott would like The Snow Goose as a play to linger with audiences, ‘for them to think about it a bit in the days and hopefully weeks that follow —it’s a story that has the potential to do that, so when it does touch people deeply that is super satisfying for me.’
You can experience the Contagious Theatre adaptation of the timeless The Snow Goose —a play that takes flight with your heart, mind and imagination— at The Fugard Theatre from 9 April until 4 May 2019. Bookings can be made online at www.thefugard.com.