A schoolboy, Emil, is on the train with a precious bit of luggage that he guards carefully. His plans fall apart when he falls asleep, and wakes up to find that he has been robbed. In the play, Emil and the Detectives, based on a classic by Erich Kästner from the Nazi era in Germany, a young child is pitted against an adult crook. A group of other quick-thinking and resourceful children reach out to him and Emil’s adventures have a happy ending. Two skilled actors from Australian group Slingsby to bring alive the story on stage in Delhi’s Siri Fort Auditorium (January 12 and 13) and NCPA in Mumbai (January 19 and 20). Excerpts from a conversation with Andy Packer, the Artistic Director, Slingsby.
Why did you choose this play to stage, and to bring to India?
I was first attracted to this story because it is often referenced by great contemporary children’s authors like Philip Pullman as a real point of inspiration for them. The story is a great adventure story for children and families but it also has some darker, truthful moments about the world we live in. The story is very honest for children about the wonder and strangeness of life. This mirrors Slingsby’s approach to making theatre for an audience that includes children and adults. We have been thrilled by the response to this production and it has been wonderful to tour it to China and now India. Later this year the show will also tour to Edinburgh and to the Sydney Opera House
Please tell us about the themes that the play deals with — friendship, determination and so on.
This adventure story reminds us that is we ever get lost, don’t know what to do, meet someone that does the wrong thing – we can ask for help and people – even people we do not know – will come to our assistance. In Nicki Bloom’s adaptation, the central question of the story is “What makes a town a town? What makes it home?” Through the show, I hope audiences are reminded of the beauty and power of community.
Have you changed the script in any way to make contemporary references?
We have not modernised the story at all – we still refer to and use rotary telephones and the design is 1930’s inspired. We find that young audiences really enjoy being invited into a world that is strange and mysterious to them but full of detail. If the story is relevant to their emotional lives it holds their attention. If history is another country – we like to take our audience on a journey to visit that rich world..
Please tell us about the presentation and stagecraft of the play?
The story contains dozens of characters – we tell the story with just two actors. This forces us to use lots of theatrical devices to represent different characters and move from location to location. Audiences will notice a nod to the films of Hitchcock and Buster Keaton. We also like playing with scale and shadow. The recorded musical score for the production is all original music composed by Quincy Grant for the production and features a ten-piece band and a forty-voice youth choir.
Alongside the beautiful design by Wendy Todd, Ailsa Paterson and animation by Luku Trembath and as the team the show also has incredible lighting design by Geoff Cobham and Chris Petridis. The lighting is very precise and we use moving lights in a way I am not sure they have eve been manipulated before. It really is visually stunning.
What are your views of theatre for young audiences, across the world and in India?
I think the best theatre for young audiences around the world really is the very best that theatre has to offer. Children are incredibly sophisticated and concerned with the big issues of life and the planet. This allows us to make theatre that is poetic, image-driven and emotional whilst always being uplifting. Alongside the theatre I make for family audiences I also direct opera – see great similarities in the storytelling techniques. Big heartfelt, beautiful explorations of the human experience.
Alongside our performances in Delhi and Mumbai, we are also running workshops with students and local artists in Jaipur, Delhi and Mumbai. We are very excited about meeting and collaborating with Indian artists. This will allow us to learn about the contemporary art practice in India and the theatre being made for families.