The full Bunyip

Mary Ann Robinson

Snuff Puppets, Nyet Nyet’s Picnic

Snuff Puppets, Nyet Nyet’s Picnic

The Snuff Puppets have always been a daring, maverick outfit. What could be more audacious than scheduling an outdoor show in Melbourne in late May? Nyet Nyet’s Picnic ran for 3 nights in Birrarung Marr, drawing crowds of people to the park, out along the river under the moon in a clear cold sky. All the elements of a storytelling space were there: a traditional cleared circle, a mound of sand, a dead tree and a fire. Also, a non-traditional green garbage bin. Peering into this circle, we see images derived from versions of bunyip stories collected from Indigenous communities all over Victoria and used with permission of Boonerwrung elder, Carolyn Briggs.

Bunyips are a natural subject for the Snuff Puppets. For years they have imagined and assembled huge animated things that give life to the creatures of dreams and nightmares. These visions are made to walk amongst us, inviting themselves into our unguarded childhood fascination with puppets. But once we let them in, Snuff Puppets behave in unexpected and disturbing ways, touching on fear, bizarre fascinations and sickening transformations. So, there are plenty of brown, big-footed, hairy, goggle-eyed folk. Endearingly cute but a bit scary. A big white hairy dog-like creature is stuffed into the garbage bin. Pale, hollow-eyed devouring things with beaks float around. Then a huge gorgeous vision: think of a Chinese dragon. She is vast, pink and orange and she eats flowers much as the Cookie Monster eats cookies, with chewing, gurgling and burps. But Snuff Puppets are Muppets gone feral. She is no vegan. Her real passion is to eat a Yorta Yorta man. The poor soul who does the wrong thing and drifts into her path is chewed greedily into her orange and pink beard. He struggles valiantly and is spat out again. Poor old girl—back to the flowers.

It turns out that a number of the monsters are female and often old as the earth herself. The Nyet Nyets trap people—not to eat them but to feed them. They suckle their wayward victims from old, droopy green breasts in order to possess their spirits. An interesting inversion of vampire stories where men with sharp teeth feed on the necks of innocent girls.

There are sections of this work where the grandeur of vision leaves the structure as a whole looking underdeveloped. If you can, picture an entire paddle steamer, with people on board, navigating onto the sandy mound. From underneath, a vast green Mulgawonky unfurls itself. Ignoring the Indigenous knowledge that if you harm the Mulgawonky you die, the foreigners dismember the monster whose body parts float off in several directions. And then they die a terrible death. The creation of such an image encapsulates the visionary way in which Snuff Puppets work. Text and internal linking are thin by comparison and at times get in the way of what we are seeing. This may be because Nyet Nyet’s Picnic started life as a part of Melbourne’s 2003 Moomba Parade, hence the emphasis on engaging visual storytelling.

A Red Neck Ranger character wanders around the site doggedly trying to enforce his ‘No Camping’ rule where the Indigenous kids have settled for the night. Visually impressive but somewhat aimless, his character really comes into its own when his head catches fire. Snuff Puppets have always excelled at capturing moments such as this—grotesque, eccentric, flamboyant and faintly nauseating.

In all their forms, these stories show bunyips are active in a kind of ongoing moral policing role. If you leave them alone and behave yourself, you’ll be okay, but if you are caught in the wrong place, alone or doing the wrong thing, out too late, then they’ll get you. These are bunyips as part of the land and the natural order of things. More than myths, they are a real and dangerous presence. I think of the Yarra (Bayrawrung) running quietly past this performance in the background. From its pristine state, Bayrawrung has been gradually made into a sewer, a tip, a storm water run-off. In recent years we find strange things might be emerging from its depths to make people very sick. Who’s been naughty, then?

Nyet Nyet’s Picnic, presented by the Snuff Puppets and Indigenous Artists; director Ian Pidd, performers Nick Barlow, Tony Briggs, Corleen Cooper, Jania Charles, Gary Donnelly, Dennis Fisher, Daniell Flood, Jason Jai, KT Prescott, Earl Rosas, PJ Rosas, Naretha Williams, designer Andy Freer, choreographer Earl Rosas, musical director, James Wilkinson; Birrarung Marr, May 20-22

RealTime issue #68 Aug-Sept 2005 pg. 45

© Mary Ann Hunter; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 August 2005
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