Theatre review: Hide the Dog, Arts Centre Melbourne, RISING

The first trans-Tasman First Nations children’s production toured from Sydney to Melbourne for RISING.

Hide the Dog was about an Aboriginal girl and a Maori boy finding a living thylacine (Tasmanian tiger) and deciding to sail to Aotearoa to hide it, meeting a variety of Māori and Aboriginal gods along the way, learning about the importance of their culture, friendship and connection to Country. This show had a lot going on.

The play, part of Melbourne’s RISING festival, was written by Trawlwoolway pakana man Nathan Maynard and Māori writer Jamie McCaskill, and was billed as the first trans-Tasman First Nations children’s production. It’s not the first outing, however; Hide the Dog showed earlier this year at the Sydney Festival.

While the production was mostly enjoyable, the different pieces of the puzzle didn’t quite slot into place. The two protagonists, Niarra and Te Umuroa, were struggling with news that Te Umuroa had to move back to Aotearoa to learn more about his culture. Then they found the thylacine and made the decision to save it from scientists who wanted to study it. Along the way they met a variety of Aboriginal and Māori gods and goddesses who taught them about culture, mob and ancient lore. Timelines weren’t always clear and the play drifted in and out of the present, the past and the Dreamtime.  

The comedy sat at a child’s level and there was no adult-oriented humour woven through for the benefit of the grown-up supervisors in the audience. Chatting with one Aboriginal man sitting next to me in the audience as the lights came up, he said he felt a little uncomfortable with some of the inspiration seemingly taken from stereotypes, especially around Islander and Māori men.

Billed as an all-ages affair in some of the marketing, the show’s fine print actually read that it’s for children aged seven and up, and I would strongly suggest sticking to that age bracket, because Little Miss Almost Four, who tends to be pretty stoic, was absolutely terrified in parts.

The acting was strong, the comedic timing and puppetry was on point and the costumes and projections on a screen at the back of the stage were great. A half-Māori-half-Aboriginal canoe was executed well, though it wasn’t completely clear what it signified in the broader scheme of things.

The backbone of the show was the traditional storytelling and the way songlines were woven throughout. The kids in the audience were entranced by some of the tales of the gods and the way things came to be, especially the thylacine.

Initially, I was concerned when I saw that the show ran for 65 minutes; that’s a long time for a child to sit in a chair, concentrating on one thing. But the show actually ran over, clocking in at about an hour and 20 minutes. There were kids in audience audibly asking their parents if they could leave. It was simply too long for a children’s production.

In the latter parts of the play, a fissure in the friendship of the two protagonists needed to be overcome before they could complete their mission to save the thylacine or, perhaps, before the thylacine could save them. This play had much to say and could have benefited from saying less. Streamlining the narrative arc could also potentially reduce the running time for the benefit of the little people.

Read: Performance review: Masterclass, Malthouse, RISING

It was a good show, with more than a few laughs scattered throughout, but some work on the script would only make it stronger and more enjoyable for audience members of all ages.

Hide The Dog by By Nathan Maynard and Jamie McCaskill
Director: Isaac Drandic
Assistant Director and pakana Cultural Adviser: Nathan Maynard
Set Designer: Jane Hakaraia
Sound Designer: Maaka McGregor
Lighting Designer: Ben Hughes
AV Designer: Keith Deverell
Costume Designer: Sabio Evans

Hide The Dog was performed 16-17 June 2023 as part of RISING.

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