Bad toys, wicked games

Keith Gallasch

Two productions for young people, Arena Theatre Company’s intimate Outlookers and Windmill’s epic The Snow Queen, are very different works, but both tackle contemporary issues to do with the child’s connection with the real and the virtual: one looks at the toy as virtual companion, the other at the computer game as alternative reality.
Anthea Davis, Outlookers

Anthea Davis, Outlookers

Anthea Davis, Outlookers


Arena’s Outlookers is about the anxieties of separation: friend from friend, child from parent, self from soul, human from animal. Young Tina loses her best friend who was moved away (the anguish is laid on with a musical trowel) and is obliged to work with the disagreeable Tom on a school project about endangered animals. The boy is short of a father, whom he variously projects as a train driver, a veterinarian, and a friend his own age. At a financially depleted zoo for rescued animals, the keeper’s beloved seal has its soul sucked out of it (a chilling moment) by a capitalist villain who downloads animal souls into a popular series of collectible toys called Outlookers. The Sealtor, a seal version of this toy, possesses Tom, using him to voice its plea for help. The children set out to rescue the real seal, in the course of which they have to deal with each other, their schoolteacher, Miss Walbury (in drag with a pink wig and large spectacles—a more than passable version of Elton John from Kevin Hopkins) who is a secret Outlookers collector, and the quipping villain (the same dextrous Hopkins). Kicked out of a zoo at the age of 3 “for sneezing on the feet of a butterfly” the crook is now head of the Outlooker Corporation. Kids, he says, are not interested in animals any more: it’s all computers and toys. The children enter a fantasy world where the boy conjures life-sized Outlookers to do knockabout battle with the villain. Alexis the seal is saved and heads out to sea with his friends. Boy and girl bond as do the zookeeper and schoolteacher.

Outlookers is entertaining enough, its young audience quietly attentive, its jokes hit and miss, its best humour physical, its songs a ragbag of styles (nothing to really sweep us along or stay with us). There are some striking costumes and hand puppets and the design is intriguing. A couple of large vibrating inflatables occupy much of the stage space, popping up additional shapes that suggest a cat, a seal, a zebra, a giant chicken and a kangaroo paw as well as various landscapes.

The curious thing about Outlookers is its stance on toys. We’re never sure what Outlookers are: simply toys with that little something extra, soul? But what does that mean? Are they techno-toys of some kind? We don’t know. The concept is incomplete. They’re not the Daemons of Philip Pulman’s stunning trilogy, His Dark Materials, souls made manifest. Certainly Outlookers are regarded as somehow bad, like mass-produced collectibles (Pokemon etc), and quite unlike real animals. However, as children we invest dolls with life, seeing them as real companions, not mere puppets. Presumably in the world of this play there are good toys and bad, capitalist toys. Compounding the confusion is the actual appeal of the Outlookers, whether as the Sealtor that speaks through Tom, or the attractive Spotiquoll and the wonderful Bat, or the Crocturaus, a hand-operated marvel that finally drives its maker, the capitalist, away. Nor is it clear why the Outlookers turn on their creator. Is it their animal spirits? It’s even less clear why, in the printed program, Arena encourages children to go online and create their own Outlookers!

Arena has a strong track record in creating large scale works that deal with the implications of technology while employing it themselves in a liberating way. I wondered what they’d make of robot toys (such as the Aibo robot dog) that are becoming increasingly popular beyond Japan and in which not only children but adults invest so much of themselves?

The Snow Queen

Windmill’s The Snow Queen is an ambitious meld of conventional theatre and new media performance. It’s an uneasy meeting if one rich in possibilities. The familiar problems of integration so common in this area (but overcome now by many artists) are only too evident here. The issue is not of technology but of its deployment. And if you’re going to use it, you have to commit yourself to it, and believe in it, even if part of your vision is critique.

In this version of the Hans Christian Andersen tale, the boy Kay (Cameron Goodall) is seduced by computer games—he’s a ready victim for the Queen’s icey, virtual, warrior game world. However, he and his friend Gerda’s (Nuala Hafner) reality is a warm, storybook, cut-out world, firmly rooted in 19th century illustration (and, here, theatre design too), a thoroughly old-fashioned place and as virtual in its own way as computer games. Already the narrative is creaking under the weight of didacticism. Whatever its problems, computer gaming is gaining status as an art form (as did film in the 20th century) and as an implement of dissent (Escape from Woomera), but here’s a play that uses the thrills of big projections of live interactive game playing to condemn it in no uncertain terms. And because the creators of The Snow Queen don’t believe in the technology they’re only too happy to exploit, they create a huge vacuum at the centre of the work.

While Gerda’s journey to save her friend is full of adventure, colour and invention, the game Kay plays is no game at all. It is the merest impression of a game. The drama of the Kay scenes is in the Faustian bargaining away of his soul with the Queen, it is not about the virtual world he wants to heroically inhabit: “I will match myself against the universe.” Although some of the game imagery is striking, neither the production’s writer nor new media artist have developed it as a world and certainly not as a seductive one for Kay or for the audience. The moral debate central to this version of the story is killed off before it is begun.

There is however visual power in the animated Queen, an eerie, androgynous 3D digital puppet (manipulated and voiced from the side of the auditorium in view of the audience), and also in the images of fragmentation, shards of ice and mirror, and, finally, her collapsing mask of authority. As other artists have discovered, a vocabulary of relationship needs to be established between live and virtual character in terms of space and scale on the stage. The unsolved problem, for example, of establishing an eyeline between Kay and the Queen, and of making real their kiss, lessened the power of their exchanges.

Gerda is an unwilling heroine, but prompted by her Gran (Nancye Hayes in a rather awkward good-witch-cum-narrator doubling), journeys in search of Kay, encountering the engaging world of a flower man and his entourage (bringing the audience to life at last!), some wonderfully comic birds (taking me back to the cartoon Heckle and Jeckle of my childhood) and a very strange young robber girl (unusually contemporary in garb and manner, and strongly played by Amber McMahon) and her ghastly tall-tree companions. The wary Gerda asks the girl, “Aren’t you scared to be so free?” Amidst all this drollery, eccentricity and colour, Kay’s world looks less than exciting. Gerda soon finds Kay and weepily rescues him by bringing her heart into play, her tears washing away the ice. Eternity is revealed as a sweeping view of the cosmos and the pair return to their old-fashioned world having “seen inside time.” Really? The dissolution of the Queen is a visually striking climax, but the stage drama is maudlin. What challenges to freedom has Gerda faced? The conjunction of 19th and 21st century narratives, images and values is an uneasy one in The Snow Queen.

Arena Theatre Company, Outlookers, director Rosemary Myers, co-writers Rosemary Myers, Lally Katz, designer Jeff Raglus, costumes Laurel Frank, composer Hugh Covill; The Studio, Sydney Opera House, April 14-25; Windmill, The Snow Queen, director Julian Meyrick, writer Verity Laughton, composer Darrin Verhagen, virtual world creator Wojciech Pisarek, design Mark Thompson, lighting Nigel Levings; Sydney Theatre, April 21-May 9

RealTime issue #61 June-July 2004 pg. 10

© Keith Gallasch; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 June 2004