The Sheep Song is that rare example of art that inspires and frightens in equal weight – a raging beauty of animalistic heights.
Presented by: FC Bergman / Toneelhuis
Reviewed: 17 March, 2023
Amid a flock of live sheep, grazing on the cold black stage of the Dunstan Playhouse, our protagonist rises. We are to immediately assume this sheep is not like the others. On its haunches, Sheep learns to walk as humans do, and eventually it will become more human than sheep. Animal fables such as The Sheep Song are essentially morality tales, meant to point out human weaknesses and vice. The term ‘fable’ might imply child-like fantasy, but have you ever read the best of them? They’re filled with wickedness and murder, so don’t let the stunning sheep costume fool you.
This extraordinary Festival production is from the highly innovative FC Bergman, a Belgian theatre collective made up of Stef Aerts, Joé Agemans, Thomas Verstraeten and Marie Vinck. The group is known for their grand-scale productions, where humans are small, with their struggles made large precisely because of their surroundings. The Sheep Song maintains this purpose but this time the set design is a minimalist one. Fantastically, there’s a conveyor belt moving from the right of the stage to the left, and the backdrop is an enormous wall that does nothing but project a kind of blankness. When Sheep first learns to walk and joins the mask-wearing humans on the conveyor belt, the choreography is swift and fascinating, a dance of busyness from a group of non-descript extras straining against the belt’s natural flow. It’s fresh and invigorating, but it’s a misnomer to the intended mood of the production, and that mood would be discomforting. Sit with the tension and you’ll find that the world Sheep wishes to be a part of both is and is not what we’d witnessed on the conveyor belt. Gone are the days of everlasting pastoral grazing, for if the humans stopped moving and were swept away with time’s passage, what progress would be made? And what is the price of progress, after all, in Sheep’s new world of evolution and sin?
Aside from a disturbing puppeteer barking a foreign language to his shame-filled puppet, The Sheep Song is entirely wordless, allowing greater weight for the on-stage ukulele performances in which the song becomes metaphor for longing. The flawlessness of Ken Hioco’s lighting is not only an implicit illumination of loneliness, but lends itself to the chiaroscuro style, so the play, with focus on the sheep costume, becomes Caravaggio-like, though in this instance it’s Caravaggio meets David Cronenberg, meaning there is horror.
The Sheep Song is an unsettling masterpiece, the kind of challenging art we expect from the Adelaide Festival, and in fact one might conclude it goes beyond expectations. It’s utterly ambitious and provoking theatre.
Reviewed by Heather Taylor Johnson
Photo credit: Tim Standing
Venue: Dunstan Playhouse, Adelaide Festival Centre
Season: nightly until March 19
Duration: 1 hour 30 minutes, no interval