Review: Masquerade – Sydney Festival

At the centre of Masquerade, a fantastical story about the Moon and the Sun and a Hare sent on a quest to unite them, is a mother and a son. In Kate Mulvany’s twist on the 1979 children’s book that touched her life as a child, Joe and his mother Tessa are confined to the nervous blandness of a hospital bed. Tessa is looking after Joe, who has cancer, alone. Money is a problem, and Joe’s health doesn’t seem to be getting any better. It is hard, and they are running out of energy.

So Tessa (Helen Dallimore) reads Masquerade to her son, and it’s a sumptuous story that feels like a fairy tale and a fable all at once. The Moon (Kate Cheel), having fallen in love with the Sun (Mikelangelo), sends the creature in her employ, Jack Hare (Nathan O’Keefe), on a journey. Armed with an amulet the Moon has forged from jewels from every part of the earth, and a riddle, she begs him to return to her with the Sun’s reply.

Masquerade. Photo by Brett Boardman.
Masquerade. Photo by Brett Boardman.

Jack Hare, the hapless, endearingly childlike hero of the piece, does not have an easy trip. He comes across some brightly drawn, wildly imaginative characters: Penny Pockets, The Practical Man, and Tara Treetops, among others).

He does not succeed in his journey.

But in the second act of the play, the show re-routes with a new purpose. Tessa and Joe resolve to find the amulet themselves and crack the riddle; they need to do something before they go mad, they need to make memories and have adventures together. So they met up with Jack Hare, and off they go.

There is a man Jack Hare meets in the first act – he is The Man Who Plays The Music That Makes The World Go Round; when Tessa meets him retracing Jack Hare’s steps, she asks him to please keep playing for as long as he can. And the show finds itself.

It’s a smart narrative structure and a good one for Mulvany, who writes deftly within her complexities, and doesn’t shy away from asking her audience members, even the little ones, to think. It’s just difficult to connect with everything in the first act, that is more broadly for children than the second act, or isn’t quite as harmonious as the second when it comes to uniting the two narrative themes; everything feels just slightly more wan than it has any right to be.

Helen Dallimore and Louis Fontaine in Masquerade. Photo by Brett Boardman.
Helen Dallimore and Louis Fontaine in Masquerade. Photo by Brett Boardman.

Lee Lewis and Sam Strong seem to have a forthright voice in common for direction on the project, with a twist of fabulising; when its heart is balanced with its mind and its sense of storybook adventure, the play and all that’s in it hits the spot. When it doesn’t, it’s hard to be invested in any of the feelings of the play – of the love and the adventure and the risk.

But it does settle in the second act, when all the threads begin to knot together.

Helen Dallimore’s Tessa grounds the fantastical world in something real, grave, and heart-wrenching; she is weary but lovingly, fiercely protective of her son. She wants rest and a hot shower and a cup of tea, and she wants to be able to save her son, and she wants to give him something to believe in. To Tessa, these goals are more or less equally impossible. Dallimore plays this kind of exhaustion and stubbornly still-burning embers of resolve beautifully; she’s the reality at the core of the play and she’s a large part of what makes it work.

Her son Joe is a boy who sort of has to cease being a boy in order to fight an illness. The role is shared doubly by Jack Andrew and Louis Fontaine; Andrew, at my performance, played his part sensitively and winningly; seeing him smile was a hard-won triumph. He has a song in the second act that is simple but stirring. One of the great things his mother does for him, and Jack Hare in turn, is give Joe back his boyishness, his wonder, his ability to exist as a child.

The cast of Masquerade.  Photo by Jamie Williams.
The cast of Masquerade. Photo by Jamie Williams.

The entire cast is wonderful, particularly Zindzi Okenyo in her multiple roles (most of the cast play multiple parts), but memorably as stern businesswoman Penny Pockets and later as a dancing Fat Pig, and Kate Cheel’s ethereality as the Moon and messy charm as Tara Treetops.

Anna Cordingley’s costumes are pleasingly, wonderfully bizarre; there’s something so captivating about the gorgeous dancing Pig, the whimsy of Penny Pockets’ voluminous pockets on such a severe woman, the way a dress can immediately identify a woman as the Moon. Her set design is  a slice of dark magic and glimmering light; it’s difficult to take in sitting close to the stage, just a whorl of impressions, a sense of gloomy majesty.

The music in this play with songs is played onstage, from The Sun’s guitar, to the band (Mikelangelo and the Black Sea Gentlemen, two members of which oversaw the show’s musical direction), who score each moment with its necessary cue. It helps the action feel a little more alive, it directs our attention back to key plot points with a gentle nudge. The play is a feast for the senses; occasionally a little much, but generally satisfying.

Zindzi Okenyo and Nathan O'Keefe in Masquerade. Photo by Brett Boardman.
Zindzi Okenyo and Nathan O’Keefe in Masquerade. Photo by Brett Boardman.

Nathan O’Keefe’s Jack Hare shares a long history with children’s protagonists (think of all those other Jacks out there!) and this one is a master of physical comedy and layered humour in tone and pronunciation. He is the child in the world, really, discovering new things every moment, re-drawing lines of friendship and despair, learning values and ideals.

And he does it while being downright adorable; he draws a steady stream of laughs from the children in the audience, and rightfully so.

He reminds us that children can answer the riddle at the heart of the show, and it’s a sweet and affirming message.

Masquerade is not a perfect work, but it’s a fine work, and it’s a lovely world to spend time in. When its poignancy is earned, it’s genuinely moving; when its storybook inventions are surprising, it’s delightful. Masquerade is ambitious, and it feels personal. If you don’t feel involved in the story in the first act, stay for the second: it’s a little too late but you’ll find your invitation in there.

Cassie Tongue

Cassie is a theatre critic and arts writer in Sydney, and is the deputy editor of AussieTheatre. She has written for The Guardian, Time Out Sydney, Daily Review, and BroadwayWorld Australia. She is a voter for the Sydney Theatre Awards.

Cassie Tongue

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