Performance review: Parrwang Lifts the Sky, Malthouse Theatre

Based on an original creation story from Wadawurrung Country, this is a tale of a magpie named Parrwang who saves the world from darkness.
A stage filled with performers dressed as animals and birds with a backdrop and set covered in Aboriginal designs.

There appears to be a welcome shift within ballet and opera spaces, with more children’s programming, in an attempt to diversify traditionally older audiences and target younger demographics.

While Parrwang Lifts The Sky (by composer and national treasure Deborah Cheetham Fraillon AO) has much to offer those younger audiences, there are some core issues that let the production down.

But first the positive aspects of the show… The Wadawurrung Dreamtime story of Parrwang is set in a tree and features birds including magpies, crows and, of course, the Creator, Bunjil the eagle.  

The staging is extremely pretty and it’s a refreshing change that it does not feature a screen or animation, as many new shows aimed at children appear to be doing now. The technique definitely has its place, but it’s lovely to experience more traditional staging.

The treetop setting is decorated with branches with dot art and natural earthy, warm tones, and some anthropomorphised decorations, especially in the home of Parrwang.

The performances are beautiful, from the joyous and kind eponymous magpie Parrwang and the conservative but pompous and comical crows, Mr and Mrs Waa.

The costuming, however, seems misguided.

Bunjil’s costume appears to be almost colonial in its style, with a long coat, waistcoat and boots. It’s understood that the show aims to weave together Aboriginal storytelling and opera’s traditional stylistic feel, but it feels jarring and it’s hard to understand the reasoning behind it. The two styles certainly do not feel complementary.  

Most of the singing is in English, with some Language and song. Explanations appear in writing at either side of the screen. The problem is that while the production is billed as being sure to ‘captivate audiences of all ages’, it would be difficult for children unable to read to follow the storyline.

Parents (including me) attending with littlies tried to read the notes to their child before they disappeared from the screen. The younger children around started to get bored and fidgety halfway through the 55-minute production. This is really a show for those aged 10 and up.

As Parrwang reaches its crescendo – with all the birds uniting with Bunjil’s blessing to lift the sky to create a sunrise, so humans don’t have to live in darkness –  a banner unfurls at the back of the stage, showing a beautiful depiction in Aboriginal art.

Except it was caught on the staging and ended up askew, comically diverting attention from what should have been an almost transcendent operatic moment and letting down the otherwise strong performances by the cast.

While some of the humour in the show works (Bunjil telling magpie Parrwang she can punish humans by swooping if they don’t behave is a highlight), other one-liners fall short, including a joke about the Avian flu.

From a musical perspective, there is also a very strange noise (a triangle perhaps?) from the orchestra pit that sounds like a phone or doorbell ringing, a distracting mistake in a show that features anthropomorphised animals.

Not having seen Parrwang Lifts The Sky in its first iteration when it showed mid-last year, it’s hard to gauge how the current production compares.

Read: Theatre review: Switzerland, Ensemble Theatre

Overall, it’s a beautiful story and the performances are lovely, so the rest is (somewhat distracting) window dressing. But with a little bit of work and tightening and another look at how the show is marketed or with better ways to engage the little ones, this could be a much stronger production.

Parrwang Lifts The Sky by Deborah Cheetham Fraillon AO
The Malthouse

Presented by Opera Victoria

Tickets: $20-39

Parrwang Lifts the Sky will be performed until 18 May 2024.

A veteran journalist, Isabelle Oderberg is a comedy fanatic and has been reviewing comedy for six years. She also reviews restaurants, opera and theatre.