Cooped up with ‘God’ in black-humoured take on Genesis

The Age 7/02/08
By Jo Roberts
For Coop

BLACK humour inspires and feeds Melbourne’s Black Hole Theatre company. Sometimes unintentionally.

During a break in rehearsal for the company’s latest show of theatre and puppetry, Coop, director Nancy Black tucks into some roast chicken for lunch. Puppetry director Rod Primrose can’t do it. He walks away.

“Chicken is finished for me for the next couple of months” he says.

If you had to go to work each day and deal with chickens both dead and living – a defrosted size four wearing adorably tiny gumboots, and a sweet-natured hen called Beulah – perhaps you’d do some dietary reassessment too.

Chickens are at the heart of Black Hole’s latest “fowl tale”, Coop, which opens tonight at fortyfivedownstairs in the city.

Coop is a cracked, black take on the tale of Genesis, with some lust, revenge and incest thrown in for good measure to the interpretations, contradictions and misinterpretations that have always surrounded the “Good Book”.

An old man slipping into dementia lives in a chicken coop with his two children. Relationships are explored and challenged as the man believes he is God, thus expecting perfection from his children. For if man was created in the image of God, then any child of God should be perfect – right?

“The references in this go from the Bible to classic family structure, the father who thinks ‘I have created you, therefore you are mine and you must be perfect’,” says Black.

“What we wanted to look at is what happens when that triangle pulls itself askew.”

An inspiration for Coop came from the visual interpretation of the Genesis tale, The Garden of Earthly Delights, by Dutch artist Hieronymus Bosch. The 1504 triptych tells the Biblical story of creation, beginning with the making of Adam and Eve, mankind’s submission to earthly sin, then the descent into damnation. A copy of the work hangs on the wall of Black Hole’s rehearsal space.

“Rod and I both love this, and we wondered how and if we could construct a puppetry response,” says Black.

Coop was first hatched as a work-in-progress called In the Beginning… Uhm that was shown in Melbourne in 2006, at the Puppetry Carnival and the Fringe Festival. The show earned Black a Green Room award nomination in 2007 for “best direction in a new form”.

A crack team has now been assembled for Coop, including puppeteers/actors Primrose, Conor Fox and Tamara Rewse, set and lighting designer Ben Cobham, and choreographer Michelle Heaven.

It was Cobham who came up with the idea of the family home as a chicken coop, in a reference to the creation riddle of the chicken and the egg, but also a nod to the Australian male’s sanctuary of the shed.

The show is a far cry from its 2006 prototype. “We didn’t have a set then, we didn’t have an overall narrative, which we do now,” says Black.

The characters also now have more profound journeys, and the murderous, harrowing tone of the play’s original creative development has been lightened up. “We found a type of mood that was lovely to work with and we’ve kept that,” says Primrose.

“But now there’s whimsy, pathos, humour, foolishness and real human connection as well,” says Black.

“Part of the piece now as it’s evolved is about how we try to make sense of the impending chaos in our lives, which is by telling stories,” he continues.

“In the Bible they tell parables which are to give you your rules and your moralities, so this peculiar family tries to tell little stories through their puppetry to one another. It sometimes works until those pesky children take liberties with the old stories he is trying to pass down to them. So there’s a real thing about generations here.”

“And reinterpreting stories,” says Primose”