Tag Archives: Guus Kuijer

Belvoir’s Book of Everything

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?

Children’s literature is not a genre

Guus Kuijer, The Book of Everything (2004; Translation by John Nieuwenhuizen, Allen & Unwin 2006)
David Greenberg & Victoria Chess, Slugs (Pepper Press 1983)

There’s a way of talking about children’s literature as if it’s a genre, like detective stories or police procedurals or thrillers or vampire stories or fantasy novels. I think this is quite wrong. A genre has acknowledged conventions, that can be followed flexibly or even violated in any particular specimen of the genre. The conventions change and grow with time. But they still rule. It’s not a vampire movie if no one sucks blood. It’s not a detective story if there’s no major crime in the first quarter of the book. Children’s literature isn’t like that. It’s defined entirely by the imagined readership. I like Margaret Mahy’s definition, which I remember as: Children’s literature is literature that you can start enjoying while a child. The two books I’ve just read illustrate my point.

0316326593 I read Slugs for the first time in years the other night. My five year old great-niece was staying with her father. At bedtime, having scoured our bookshelves, she emerged with this unpleasant little book and asked me in her sweet, shy way to read it to her. Evidently she’d fallen in love with the book earlier in the year when they stayed here in our absence. I complied with as much gusto as I could muster. I find the book profoundly unattractive. It has rudimentary rhymes, describing a huge variety of slugs, many being subjected to would-be comic indignities, tortured and murdered in hideous ways, all with images showing the brown creatures impassively accepting their fates, until in the last pages they come and wreak a horrible revenge on a child (known in the book as ‘you’), ending:

And after how you’ve treated Slugs
It surely serves you right!

My great-niece seemed to enjoy having this horror read to her, and when I’d finished she sat for maybe half an hour studying the pages intently.

Clearly she is the reader the creators had in mind – she and my sons twenty or so years ago. I am not that reader.

1kuijerThe Book of Everything is definitely a children’s book, but it couldn’t be more different. It has more in common with J M Coetzee’s Boyhood (which I’ll blog about during the week), in subject matter, point of view, even tone, than it does with Slugs. A lonely boy, helped by apparitions of Jesus and an old woman who is almost certainly a witch, finds a way to free himself and his family from the dominion of his harsh, violent, religiously extreme father. It speaks in particular to literate children. The hero,Thomas, finds inspiration in Emil and the Detectives, Joanna Spyri’s All Alone in the World and the Book of Genesis. The narrative assumes familiarity with literary conventions (OK, there are some conventions!), particularly those about witches in children’s literature. I found my adult-reader self wanting explanations of Thomas’s visions: ‘Please be clear about this. Is the poor child hallucinating from terror, or is this a world where such things really happen?’ Such questions are just plain irrelevant to the book’s imagined reader, and once I moved over to occupy that position the book opened up to me – or I opened up to it.

It occurred to me that just as Pixar animations, among other children’s movies, tend to wink knowingly over the heads of the children in their audience, both these books are winking at the children – ‘Don’t tell the adults.’ If we have to talk genre, the first is something like Perversely Cautionary Verse (which may be a genre found only in children’s literature), the second Domestic Magic Realism (and I doubt if that is limited to any age readers).

I read The Book of Everything on Richard Tulloch‘s recommendation. His dramatisation of it will be playing at Belvoir Street at the end of the year. It seems to me that one of his challenges is to take the story away from the children and give it to the adults who will presumably make up the bulk of the Belvoir audience.