The Book of Everything at Belvoir Street, adapted by Richard Tulloch from Guus Kuijer’s children’s book, directed by Neil Armfield, designed by Kim Carpenter of Theatre of Image, and performed by a brilliant cast, gave me the most satisfying evening I’ve had in the theatre for a very long time. The audience was mostly adults, though the smattering of children – or at least the ones in my row – were vocal in their enjoyment.
It has its controversial aspects. In a comment at the Stage Noise site, someone identifying self only as ‘Mummy’, wrote::
Parents should be warned that the “dark moments” in this play include graphic domestic violence where a mother is hit in the stomach and face by her husband. I wonder how many parents would take their children to see the play if they were warned about this content.
At Mim’s Muddle, in the course of an excellent account of the play, the eponymous Mim mentioned the portrayal of domestic violence, noting that if she’d been more alert she would have seen mention of it in the press. She went on to say, ‘But, being a story intended for kids, there was resolution and healing at the end and it certainly led to interesting conversations about relationships on the way home in the car.’ Richard Tulloch commented:
Yes, in rehearsals there was naturally much discussion about the violence in the show. It’s unavoidable in the story, and without the shock of seeing it, we wouldn’t feel the same elation when Thomas eventually rises above it. But we hope that by making it stylized and short it won’t dominate the whole experience for kids, so that they are unable to appreciate the happier scenes.
Here’s my two bobs’ worth, and I speak as one who walked out of a previous Belvoir Street production because of its representation of violence. Violence on stage is very different from screen violence; we could see that the people in front of us were not being harmed (the noise of impact was provided by a person sitting in full view on the other side of the stage, the action was in slow motion, etc.). The violence was understood as dreadful, possibly even cosmos shattering, so there’s no question of it being normalised (as it is every afternoon in the cartoons), and there was indeed resolution and the hope of forgiveness at the end. I too wonder how many children would get to see the play if their parents were ‘warned’ about this content, and I wonder, in addition, if the children who weren’t taken would be deprived of something valuable. I worry that protectiveness of our children may sometimes do more harm than the things we want to protect them from. An age advisory might be called for, but I think it would be a rare ten year old (almost the age of the play’s main character, played with amazing grace and stamina by the 33 year old Matthew Whittet) who would be traumatised by this production.
When The Summer of the Seventeenth Doll toured rural Australia in the late 1950s, I had the good fortune to see it, my very first piece of professional theatre. I was 10 or 11 years old. Someone, in my hearing, questioned my parents’ wisdom in taking me, given the play’s adult themes. My good Catholic father, bless his memory, fobbed off the concerned citizen with a joke. I loved the play, the adult themes sailing right past me, but I was transported by the intense emotion, which these days might well be classed as domestic violence, and still treasure the memory.
Possibly the best thing about The Book of Everything is that it transcends the separation of children’s and adult’s culture that we have come to accept as normal. It’s a play about a child that adults can enjoy without condescension. A man playing a savage dog, ridiculously, runs through the audience; there’s the kind of audience participation that’s usually restricted to children’s theatre (we throw things onto the stage, and some of us get to sit up there in the final scene). We adults are allowed to enjoy as if we are children. And the children in the audience are allowed to engage with big themes: how do you deal with abuse of power? is there a God?