Edinburgh Fringe 2014
Duck, Death and the Tulip is an impressive, heart-warming and captivating story about a duck and a representation of death. And a tulip. The story follows Duck as he befriends an individual representing death and as we watch the bond grow, Death talks to Duck about the wonders of life and the reality of death, through a truly moving relationship. Do not be fooled by the apparent focus on young children – take children by all means but if you don’t have one to hand, get up early and take your inner child.
My usual approach to writing a review is to write some notes and first impressions immediately after seeing the show and then write the review a little later with a final revision and check a little later still so that I feel I am giving the show as thoughtful and considered a response as possible. Only for Duck, Death and the Tulip I’m not. I’m writing from the heart and guts an hour after seeing because that is what I want to share.
I also have to confess that it is not all my own work! I am an adult (at least chronologically speaking) so I am very grateful to Alice (3) and Sophie (5) with their mum, Nicky and Ula (6) and her dad, Oliver, for spending some time with me after the show to tell me what they thought and what had stood out for them.
What struck me as the girls talked about the show was the amount of detail they remembered and their thoughtful analysis of the theme – death. I won’t spoil the show for others by giving away too much of that detail but there is lots of it and it is all exquisite.
This stage adaptation of the book Duck, Death and the Tulip, by German illustrator Wolf Erlbruch, and presented by Little Dog Barking Theatre is designed for early childhood audiences, and my fellow reviewers were totally engaged. They sat in the front absorbed and occasionally commenting or describing on what they were seeing in front of them. This didn’t throw the actors/puppeteers at all, neither did they respond, they simply allowed the children to comment and carried on, which maintained the otherness of the world we were watching.
We see death as Duck spies, pursues and finally gobbles up a large snail, but also as a character, an old man. Sometimes he is a puppet, sometimes human. As the two of them drink tea, swim in a pond, climb a tree and keep each other warm, Duck learns that death is a constant companion, a part of life.
Writer Peter Wilson drew on personal experience in writing it saying in the company’s press information that: “When I was a young boy and my brother died, no one was around to explain death to me and it would have been wonderful to have had a book like this.” The story follows a duck as he meets a character called death and they gradually develop a warm friendship. As the story progresses Duck finds herself accepting death’s lingering presence and no longer feels threatened or afraid. One of Oliver’s comments was that he thought it would raise a lot of questions from Ula later.
Duck’s story is performed by Wilson and Shona McNeil using puppets crafted to replicate the book illustrations. Their handling of the puppets is excellent. The children knew they were watching puppets and that the ‘lady in a black dress’ was operating Duck but they also spoke of Duck as an entirely real character with feelings and thoughts, possibly helped by being very clearly a Scottish duck!
A tiny detail but one that I felt was significant was their introduction of a few local references – to the Castle, for example, as well as Duck’s local accent. The effect was to bring the story absolutely and clearly into Edinburgh, where we are, where the children I talked to live. I hope that is something they do with every show as I felt it helped to make Duck’s story something to relate to personally, not see as a story from somewhere else, with a meaning only for people from somewhere else.
Despite the local references there is a sense throughout of peeping into another world and it being a very great privilege to do so. A world that we might be able to see in the streets of Edinburgh if we could just turn our heads quick enough. I think I had a smile on my face throughout, even when there was a lump in my throat as well. And I overheard a young adult confessing to her friend that she had cried a little as I left.
I particularly wanted to explore how the children and their parents felt about the pace because, to an adult it sometimes felt a little slow. Both Nicky and Oliver described it as gentle rather than slow. There are a number of places where a simple action and response is repeated several times each time building the humour of the moment. Adults will appreciate the subtle shifts in each repetition. For three year old Alice it allowed her to take it all in, to reinforce the joke. So, overall, I think my adult senses should be put to one side on this occasion. The music composed for the piece by New Zealand composer Gareth Farr helps establish the pace as right as it supports the story beautifully and is not intrusive.
I found it to be a very gentle and simple piece on the surface with huge depth and power beneath. It never talks down to the children; the language is simple but never feels patronising.
It addresses something we all face dealing with at some point in our lives in a way that doesn’t try to preach or offer answers, simply paves the way for all those questions that I hope Ula, Alice and Sophie will be asking over the next few days as they talk both about the sadness of death and the happy times that Duck had as well.
And if that sounds as though this is a show to see only if you have young children then I can only say take your inner child, you won’t regret it. And treat your adult to an excellent coffee in the Summerhall café as a reward for getting up early.