It was a cold wintry day in Fremantle and holiday makers queuing for the Rottnest ferry were hunched again the wind. Across the park families were queuing inside Spare Parts Puppet Theatre for a journey to the wheatbelt via the magic of a darkened theatre.
The Farmer’s Daughter was developed through a unique collaboration between the Merredin farming community and SPPT in 2014 when the creative team immersed themselves in the daily of lives of a classic wheatbelt town. Such was its success (the production was nominated for six Performing Arts WA Awards) the show has been reprised.
Ian Sinclair’s story spans the breadth of Australian farm life from pre-colonial wilderness to a country bush dance, taking in sheep musters, drought and fire along the way. Daisy Coyle played the daughter, an exuberant yet frustrated child prevented by gender traditions from taking an active role on the farm. St John Cowcher and Rebecca Bradley were her stoic parents while the powerful relationship to land was characterised by the clay-painted Ruth Battle who was a tree, fire, rain, an impressive sprung kangaroo and a recalcitrant sheep.
The story of the farmer’s daughter unfolds in a myriad of simple yet profound ways. Director Philip Mitchell and designer Matt McVeigh used miniature wooden structures to represent the farm house and large wooden boxes were acres of sandy paddocks. There was no dialogue aside from the conversation over 2-way radio between the daughter and her grandfather, voiced with immense character by Humphrey Bower. Yet the show was brimming with emotion and relational connection.
The magic came through Graham Walne’s lighting. And not just the moodiness from the stage lights but the eerie glow of fire, the silhouette of farm buildings enlarged on the back wall, shadow puppetry and a circular louvre blind shimmering as the moon or sun. Walne’s boundless inventiveness included a vintage light projector hidden under one of the paddocks so that when the daughter wrote her wishes in the sand we could see it projected on the back wall.
Lee Buddle’s sound design was equally powerful, with its use of folk instruments (that mournful violin during the drought) and electronic effects like the crackle of fire.
My children (5 and 7) absorbed everything with intense interest and picked up the deeper messages, including the sadness and loneliness of the daughter and the importance of the moments (seeding, fire fighting, mustering) when the family worked together. In fact those moments of togetherness were Tahlia’s favourite. Matthew’s favourite part was the drama of the fire, ‘when the stage got puffed with steam and smoke’.
Touches of humour like the sheep chase were a welcome relief and there were some golden moments of scripting such as grandpa’s reminiscing: “The leaves were as green as grandma’s eyes, and the flowers were as yellow as her teeth.”
My children say you will like this show if you live on a farm or if you are a grandad. They recommend it to kids because it is funny and it has a nice ending.
The Farmer’s Daughter is a special and very Australian experience for the whole family to share. The 50 minute performance (plus a 10 minute Q&A) is presented daily at 10am and 1pm, Monday to Saturday during the school holidays.