Sleuths from Down Under

Updated: Jan 18, 2019, 12:01 IST | Snigdha Hasan

A touring theatre company from Adelaide brings its stage adaptation of the 1929 novel Emil and the Detectives to the city

Sleuths from Down Under
Tim Overton and Elizabeth Hay in scenes from the play

A young schoolboy from a modest background boards a train from a provincial town in Germany to Berlin. He has set out to meet his grandma and give her the money his mother has saved for months. Aware of the responsibility, he carefully sews the money into the lining of his coat. But then he meets an unscrupulous co-passenger and things go awry. Will he be able to recover his money? Who comes to his help in an unknown city?

There is something deeply empowering and assuring about a story that celebrates a child's agency. And that's perhaps why the story of Emil Tischbein and his army of little sleuths is a much-loved one and remains relevant 90 years after it was written by well-known German writer, poet and satirist Erich Kästner. In 2017, Emil and the Detectives was adapted for the stage for Adelaide-based Slingsby Theatre Company by playwright Nicki Bloom, and after a warm reception in the country, the play has been brought to India as part of the six month-long Australia Fest.

Tim Overton and Elizabeth Hay

"I was first attracted to the story of Emil and the Detectives because it is often referenced by great contemporary children's authors like Philip Pullman as a point of inspiration for them. When I read the novel, I was excited by the way Kästner presents a world filled with good people and flawed people. Despite it being a story for children, he presents a complex world where happiness and sadness coexist. This mirrors our approach to making theatre for an audience that includes children and adults," says Slingsby's artistic director Andy Parker, in an email interview from Jaipur, where the company has been conducting workshops in collaboration with a city-based arts initiative. The play will be staged in Mumbai this weekend.

For a touring theatre company, it isn't always feasible to travel with a huge cast. But challenges such as these are offset with resourceful stagecraft, as can be seen in this two-actor production. Interestingly, Emil's character is portrayed by Elizabeth Hay. "I feel that the central character of Emil is a hero — its gender is not relevant. This is a child's story of discovery, not a boy's or girl's. We hope this allows both boys and girls to really identify with the character," Packer tells us. His work in opera and music theatre reflects in the production, where the score by Adelaide composer Quincy Grant, includes a 10-piece band and a 40-voice youth choir.

"We are always looking for sophisticated sound worlds for our shows — there is nothing dumbed down here about the music," adds Packer. Fitting for a play that, in his words, "shows that there is darkness in the world. But that this darkness serves to make the light moments even brighter and more wonderful."

On January 19 and 20, 12 noon, 4 pm and 7 pm (for ages eight and above)
At Experimental Theatre, NCPA, Nariman Point.
Call 22824567
Entry Rs 750 onwards

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