Just this past week, I was fortunate enough to attend a performance of Stewart Lee’s Pea Green Boat, not once but twice!
From the outset, I need to be clear that I am not, in any way, trying to write a theatre review here. I can barely structure a book review let alone dabble in critiquing immersive theatre. Let’s just call whatever this is that I am writing “reflections”. To add to that, I need to make a full disclosure and say that I have known Director Jim Fishwick for many years as I am friends with his mum and my son has been at school with his brother for gazonkadonks.
I loved Edward Lear’s Nonsense Songs when I was younger. They were weird and silly and enormously fun. One of the most famous, and delightful, of his poems is The Owl and The Pussy-cat which comedian Stewart Lee has appropriated into a darker, macabre tale of love and obsession whilst drifting pointlessly at sea. I love appropriated fiction. Whether it is posted up as fanfiction or fanart, whether it gets the rubber stamp of approval from publishers or production companies, there is something wonderful about a story that gets elaborated upon by many different storytellers. To add to that, every morning for this past month, I have woken up to my husband laughing at Stewart Lee youtube clips. I was already familiar with two major aspects of the theatre I was about to to take part in. In Jetpack Theatre Collective‘s reimagining of Stewart Lee’s reimagining of the Pea Green Boat, we the audience are cast afloat in a pea green boat, a real one.
From here, the audience of three are addressed by the Owl (Hannah Cox) who talks of her deep love for the Pussy-cat (Jim Fishwick), as inappropriate and species-challenged as their love may be. Meanwhile, the Pussy-cat sits behind us rowing across the water to meet the Turkey (Alexander Richmond) who is to marry them.
The first performance I attended was perhaps the most absurd experience I have had. Due to gale force winds, safety concerns kept the Pea Green Boat from being set adrift. Instead, the boat sat chained ontop of a trailer, in a carpark overlooking a supa-sekrit bay in Sydney Harbour. The two other audience members and I donned our lifejackets, climbed up a stepladder and into a boat where the Owl addressed us while we were all buffeted by racing winds that reached 90km/h. While we were clinging to our drydocked theatre, a limousine pulled up beside us and out poured a brace of bucks who gave us some serious side-eye as they walked to their rowers club while the Owl lamented at the impossible circumstances we found ourselves in. Indeed, it was impossible. The howling of the wind and the bongo playing bachelor’s party paired with my tinnitus impeded my ability to hear the show clearly. Instead, I relished in the absurdity of the situation I found myself in. Bizarre, gusty and amusing.
A few days later, I received a message from the Pussy-cat letting me know that there were a couple of spare tickets that I could have so I could watch the show the way it was supposed to be performed – on the water, floating at sea. I happily accepted his offer. A late afternoon on a rowboat while I had poetry orated to me is my idea of gorgeous. Once again, I donned my lifejacket, the boat was set adrift, clear waters, a brisk breeze and the setting sun provided the perfect backdrop as the Pussy-cat rowed while the Owl talked of her love. And what a beautiful, mismatched love! I could not think of a more wonderful way to experience this silly poem. We drifted on the water for over half an hour until we reached a picturesque peninsula. We audience three hopped out of the rowboat onto a sandy beach, our feet cooled by the water before being led up the hill, soft green grass underfoot, eucalypts swaying above us to hear the Turkey tell of the odd-paired marriage of sorts that he had officiated. Where the week before, I had not heard a word of the Turkey’s lines, this time, I heard every word clearly.
And this is where Stewart Lee’s interpretation of Lear’s nonsense poem fell apart for me. I have previously loved and delighted at the absurdity of the Owl and the Pussy-cat and Edward Lear’s allusion to seemingly impossible love being able to overcome all obstacles. I adore the ethereal joy, the lightness that I feel in the ending of Lear’s poem which I have always imagined to be followed with a wedding party of fun.
Lee’s reinterpretation of this ending, however, is macabre and dark. Sad and blighted. Although it was brilliantly written, and although it was beautifully performed, I was saddened yet unsurprised, that once again, a romance imbued with happily ever after joy was twisted into a cynical, nihilistic end. This is what is celebrated in our society and I suppose, to those who embrace literary fiction, this is hardly a failing.
Overall, I loved watching this quirky, funny piece of immersive theatre. Both the land and the sea shows were brilliantly realised. They embodied the absurdity of Lear’s original poem while embracing the twisted darkness of Lee’s deconstruction.
Pea Green Boat has completed its successful Sydney season. There are several professional theatre reviews that you can search for on the interwebs. Jetpack Theatre Collective post their upcoming events on their Facebook page.
The Owl and the Pussy-cat is the first poem in Edward Lear’s Nonsense Books. It is out of copyright and available as a free download from Project Gutenberg.
THE OWL AND THE PUSSY-CAT.
The Owl and the Pussy-Cat went to sea
In a beautiful pea-green boat: They took some honey, and plenty of money
Wrapped up in a five-pound note. The Owl looked up to the stars above,
And sang to a small guitar, “O lovely Pussy, O Pussy, my love,
What a beautiful Pussy you are, You are, You are! What a beautiful Pussy you are!”
Pussy said to the Owl, “You elegant fowl,
How charmingly sweet you sing! Oh! let us be married; too long we have tarried:
But what shall we do for a ring?” They sailed away, for a year and a day,
To the land where the bong-tree grows; And there in a wood a Piggy-wig stood,
With a ring at the end of his nose, His nose, His nose, With a ring at the end of his nose.
The Owl and the Pussy-cat
“Dear Pig, are you willing to sell for one shilling
Your ring?” Said the Piggy, “I will.” So they took it away, and were married next day
By the Turkey who lives on the hill.
They dined on mince and slices of quince,
Which they ate with a runcible spoon; And hand in hand, on the edge of the sand,
They danced by the light of the moon, The moon, The moon, They danced by the light of the moon.