The Rabbits, a new operatic adaptation of Shaun Tan and John Marsden’s picture book composed by Kate Miller-Heidke and libretto by Lally Katz, is a beautiful-looking piece of art. In the Roslyn Packer theatre, Gabriela Tylesova’s set evokes an elegant outback, and her costumes create striking marsupials with vulnerable curves, and steampunk-inspired invading Rabbits.
In this allegorical musical narrative, the marsupials (Hollie Andrew, Jessica Hitchcock, Lisa Maza, Marcus Corowa and David Leha) are living their lives peacefully until everything about their lives is interrupted by these foreign rabbits (Kanen Breen, Nicholas Jones, Christopher Hillier, Simon Meadows and Robert Mitchell), who bring buildings, machinery, and cruelty into the land – and steal the marsupials’ babies. It is, of course, a gentle re-imagining of the brutal genocide and invasion of British colonists upon arrival in Australia.
Floating above the story (quite literally) is Kate Miller-Heidke’s narrator bird, who guides us through the story with the sometimes wordless cries of nature. Unfortunately, here at the beginning is where the imagery seems a little out of step with the nature of the production. Miller-Heidke is white, and it seems a lot like a white person explaining and interpreting Indigenous experience – which is the case with the original text, too, written by white creatives (the stage adaptation brought Rachel Maza on board as an Indigenous consultant), but it feels harsher on stage: at one point a marsupial implores the bird to intervene. She can’t, because she’s not of the story, just a guide through it, but it looks more like a racial rebuff.
The music (with arrangements by Iain Grandage and lively musical direction by Isaac Hayward), originates from an energetic five-piece band. They are a solidly Western-sounding ensemble; there seems to be a missed opportunity, thematically, to explore Indigenous musical influences as well to tell a story of two cultures meeting, rather than making the oppressor musically dominant. Maybe it leaves the allegory more applicable to other places and times, but why on earth should we live in a world where western cultural artefacts, like music, are always considered the default? Why not be more specific?
This is a production clearly designed for children, and it minimises the effect of invasion, assimilation, murder and more in a completely sanitised way. It’s almost fair to the rabbits, and seems hesitant to make too much of a point – something that works well in a storybook but does feel weak on stage. Maybe it would be more effective had it pushed harder and gone broader, assigned the rabbits clear villainy, or, if it had become a symbolic, metaphoric adult work of non-narrative operatic storytelling. It’s too cute to have real impact for an adult audience, and I’m not sure how successful it is in presenting history to children.
Still, it does look and sound beautiful, and if it does nothing else, one would hope it is starting a conversation about our deplorable genocidal history where it truly matters – with children and young people.